Created by Rian Johnson
Writer/director Rian Johnson may just be the best undercover friend the P.I. genre has had in a long, long time.
First he gave us 2005’s Brick, a sly reworking of noir tropes, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a teenage would-be Marlowe working his wall through the mean hallways of his high school. Then Johnson dished up Knives Out, a 2019 crowd-pleaser which introduced former Bond Daniel Craig as foppish, Southern-fried gentleman detective Benoit Blanc. The obligatory sequel, Glass Onion, followed in December 2002.
Just weeks later, in January 2023, Johnson’s latest foray into the crime and mystery genre, Poker Face, made its debut. No, Natasha Lyonne’s CHARLIE CALE isn’t playing a P.I.
Or, not exactly. She’s more P.I.-adjacent, a wise-cracking former casino worker and full-time shit magnet with a cool but battered muscle car (a blue 1969 Plymouth Barracuda) who’s on the run from assorted parties on both sides of the law.
The hook is that Charlie’s some kind of a human lie detector, who somehow knows immediately if someone’s bullshitting or not. She used that at one point to make a living as a professional gambler, but that lead to seriously pissing off a casino owner or two. So she kept her head down, eking out a living as a cocktail waitress in a casino while living in a beat-up, sun-blasted trailer (shades of Rockford!) out in the desert. Things go seriously awry, though, when her best friend is murdered, and Charlie has to go on the lam (it’s complicated) for murder of the casino’s manager. She lives out of her shitbox Barracuda mostly, but fortunately for viewers, she conveniently stumbles into a murder that needs solving every episode.
It’s a conscious effort by Johnson to evoke the the “case-of-the-week” TV format of his youth, and there’s a serious retro vibe to the whole thing, right down to the bright yellow san serif opening credits and musical background. A lot of the press namedrops Columbo and The NBC Mystery Movie (1971-77) as inspirations, and its inverted mystery format certainly rings some bells. Viewers know from the git-go know who did it—the fun is in watching Charlie figure it all out, in a parade of flashbacks.
But the whole set-up also reminds me of The Fugitive (1961-67), which also featured someone on the run who conveniently trips over trouble on a weekly basis. That one starred David Janssen and was created by Roy Huggins. Who also co-created The Rockford Files.
Lyonne as Charlie, meanwhile, is a rough-edged wonder to behold; a cynical, world-weary grump with major—if uneven–detective chops who can seemingly solve crimes (and find a temporary job) wherever she goes. She’s also an irrepressible motormouth, constantly muttering and sputtering and croaking out wisecracks whether anyone’s listening or not, reportedly drawing inspiration from Elliott Gould’s portrayal of Philip Marlowe in Robert Alman’s The Long Goodbye. But that seen-it-all rasp is all her own.
Adding to the fun is an impressive and colourful ensemble cast (shades of the Knives Out movies). Benjamin Bratt is spot-on as as the ruthless casino fixer who has it in for Charlie and is doggedly pursuing her pops up every noe and then, usually just missing her, and the guest stars and cameos are worth noting: Ellen Barkin, S. Epatha Merkerson, Tim Meadows, Nick Nolte, Ben Stiller, Ron Perlman, Chloë Sevigny, Tim Blake Nelson, Luis Guzmán and Rhea Perlman all pop up in one episode or another. Not bad…
I’ve got high hopes for this one. Natasha Friggin’ Lyonne delivers more spunk in one line than a whole season of chattering hairspray femme fatales and air-brushed neo-noirs can cough up.
Mind you, Poker Face is on Peacock, NBC’s much derided streaming service, so it’ll be a struggle to break through the streaming noise. Let’s hope it does…
- “I’ve been rich. Easier than being broke, harder than doing just fine.”
—Charlie waxes philosophical
- “‘Poker Face’ is the Best New Detective Show of 1973”
— James Poniewozik (January 2023, The New York Times)
- POKER FACE
Created by Rian Johnson
Writers: Rian Johnson
Directors: Rian Johnson, Natasha Lyonne herself,Janicza Bravo
Executive producers: Rian Johnson, Ram Bergman, Natasha Lyonne, Nena Rodrigue, Nora Zuckerman, Lilla Zuckerman
Starring Natasha Lyonne as CHARLIE CALE
and Adrien Brody
Also starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Stephanie Hsu, David Castañeda, Benjamin Bratt, Danielle Macdonald, Dascha Polanco, Lil Rel Howery, Ellen Barkin, Chloë Sevigny, Jameela Jamil, Tim Meadows, Audrey Corsa, Niall Cunningham, Hong Chau, Simon Helberg, S. Epatha Merkerson, Judith Light, Nick Nolte, Ron Perlman, Charles Melton, Tim Blake Nelson, Noah Segan, Cherry Jones, Luis Guzmán, Rhea Perlman, Clea DuVall, Colton Ryan, Brandon Michael Hall
- SEASON ONE
- “Dead Man’s Hand” (January 26, 2023)
- “The Night Shift” (January 26, 2023)
- “The Stall” (January 26, 2023)
- “Rest in Metal” (January 26, 2023)
- “Time of the Monkey” (February 2, 2023)
- “Exit Stage Death” (February 9, 2023)
- “The Future of the Sport” (February 16, 2023)
- “The Orpheus Syndrome” (February 23, 2023)
- “Escape From Shit Mountain” (March 2, 2023)
- “The Hook” (March 7, 2023)
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.