Filmmaker Rian Johnson has had quite a journey from being the pariah of Star Wars fandom just a few years ago to a celebrated auteur and Oscar nominee. Hot on the heels of the successful Netflix run for his feature Glass Onion, Johnson’s new TV series Poker Face premiered on Peacock, garnering a lot of buzz that it may finally be the type of breakout hit the streamer has desperately needed.
While Johnson’s involvement is all behind the camera, the show is also a starring vehicle for Natasha Lyonne, the sarcastic, gravel-voiced actress from Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black and Russian Doll who specializes in playing characters a little rough around the edges. If not quite the artistic achievement Russian Doll was, the new series makes a very enjoyable showcase for her talents.
|Episodes:||1.01 – Dead Man’s Hand|
1.02 – The Night Shift
1.03 – The Stall
1.04 – Rest in Metal
|Premiere Date:||January 26, 2022|
In numerous respects, Poker Face is a throwback project, designed in specific emulation of detective shows from the 1970s, with particular emphasis on The Rockford Files and Columbo. Although murder-of-the-week procedurals never exactly went out of favor, and are still widely found all over broadcast, cable, and streaming, something about this one still manages to feel fresh, like a welcome return to the peak days of the genre. That’s a fascinating achievement considering the limitations of the format and how stale most of these shows have gotten.
Lyonne stars as Charlie, a feisty (and let’s be honest, kind of trashy) woman with a big personality and a big mouth to match it. Charlie has a special talent, her own personal super power, of being able to instantly and invariably tell when someone is lying. She can sense bullshit without fail, and rarely hesitates to call it out. This has often gotten her into more trouble than it’s helped her. She also has what many would call a personality failing, in that she just can’t let a problem go once it starts to nag at her. Like the proverbial dog with a bone, she fixates on the issue with relentless determination until she gets to the bottom of it.
We first meet Charlie working as a cocktail waitress in a Las Vegas casino. When her good friend and co-worker is killed, allegedly by the woman’s husband in a murder-suicide scenario, Charlie immediately knows that something doesn’t smell right. Unfortunately, her poking around and asking a few too many questions results in the shady casino manager (Adrien Brody) trying to silence her, but only after he ropes her into an elaborate scheme to defraud a big-time gambler staying at the hotel. Things escalate and, by the end of the first episode, Charlie has to skip town and go on the run, with the casino owner’s “fixer” henchman (Benjamin Bratt) on her tail, chasing her from state to state trying to silence her for good.
Charlie is not a professional detective, and has no interest in law enforcement or criminal justice, but she doesn’t like it when innocent people get screwed over, as she often has, and feels a compulsion to user her talents to set things right whenever she sees it happen. The series quickly establishes a formula where Charlie will travel to a new random location each episode, and attempt as much as she’s able to keep a low profile, but inevitably get wrapped up in solving a murder when the usual authorities prove insufficient.
Of the show’s inspirations, Columbo vibes are strongest – both in the way every episode opens by immediately revealing the guilty party and then letting viewers enjoy watching Charlie try to figure out what they already know – and in Charlie’s dogged determination to annoy suspects into revealing their secrets. If Charlie doesn’t actually use the specific words “Just one more thing…”, that phrase frequently comes to mind in the scene staging and Lyonne’s performance.
Peacock premiered the series last week with a drop of four hour-long episodes, to be followed with new installments weekly on Thursdays for an additional six weeks (ten episodes total). Each episode has a new setting, a new murder, and a new cast of guest stars. Among those featured in the first batch are recent Oscar nominee Hong Chau (The Whale), God Friended Me star Brandon Micheal Hall, Cheers and Pixar veteran John Ratzenberger, comedian Lil Rel Howery, and Lyonne’s former Russian Doll co-star Chloë Sevigny.
Rian Johnson directed the first two episodes (with a writing credit on the pilot), before leaving the show in other hands. All of the initial episodes are very entertaining, with complex plots for Charlie to unravel in her own unconventional way, plenty of sharp dialogue, and a great many laugh-out-loud moments. Episode 3, The Stall, about a crime of greed and jealousy at a Texas barbecue joint, is where the show really finds its groove with hilarious comedy bits, colorful characters, and a storyline that culminates in a very satisfying payoff.
Through it all, Natasha Lyonne shines in a vehicle perfectly tailored to her razor-sharp wit and sly, foul-mouthed charm. I’ve been a fan of the actress since 1998’s Slums of Beverly Hills. This is her biggest mainstream leading role to date, and if it can maintain a consistent standard of quality over subsequent episodes, I could see it lasting for a healthy run. At least, I hope the proves to be the case.
Peacock streams Poker Face in 4K HDR at a standard 16:9 aspect ratio. The image has deep (sometimes overcranked) contrasts and can be very dark, especially in interiors. However, it’s never dim. Highlights are well-defined, and daytime scenes are quite bright. The photography is often grainy for a retro stylistic effect. Colors also frequently look pushed or oversaturated, which seems to be intentional, though I’m not entirely sure what the point of it is.
On the nights that I watched, playback regularly stuttered and/or broke up into compression macroblocking. I blame that on Peacock’s insufficient streaming bandwidth.
The Dolby 5.1 audio has nice bass and dynamic range. Surround usage is subtle and barely registers notice.
The episodes are each structured with four to five natural ad-break points that usually aren’t too intrusive.