When Columbo first aired in 1968, it broke the first rule of detective fiction. Rather than withholding the identity of the killer, it gave the audience that knowledge upfront. The pleasure, then, came from watching Peter Falk’s rain-coated lieutenant unravelling the seemingly impenetrable mystery at the viewers’ leisure. It’s a trick that’s been repeated by shows like Monk and Luther, though never quite with Columbo’s panache. But with the combined powers of writer-director Rian Johnson and his lead Natasha Lyonne, Sky’s new anthology mystery series, Poker Face, pulls it off with no shortage of razzle or dazzle.
The premise is simple: Charlie (Lyonne) is a human lie detector. Banned from card games across America, she’s now gainfully employed as a cocktail waitress at a casino bar, staying out of trouble and making beer money. But she also cannot fail to spot when somebody is lying, and so when her best friend, Nat (Dascha Polanco), is found dead in a suspected murder/suicide, she goes on a crusade for the truth. But finding it will guarantee her drifter fate, with Charlie condemned to a perpetual crime-solving road trip. “Every day you’re mad about something you can’t do something about,” Nat tells Charlie, her bug eyes bulging. But in spite of the world being against her, she’s about to find purpose in righting wrongs.
The show’s creator, Rian Johnson, has done much to re-popularise the murder mystery genre. From his 2005 debut Brick, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a high school detective, to Knives Out, his 2019 whodunnit that has spun-off into a lucrative Netflix series, Johnson has a very specific tone. These are essentially comedies, and Lyonne is the ideal foil; even when dealing with grizzly details, her timbre is naturally funny. Playing roughly the same character she’s taken on in every project since American Pie, she is a bundle of unhinged charisma. “It’s kinda breaking my brain a little bit,” she tells a gas station attendant, as the vast scope of her powers becomes apparent.
Lyonne is the anchor, but Johnson has assembled a starry cast of cameos. From Adrien Brody to Nick Nolte, Chloë Sevigny to Hong Chau, the Knives Out director’s pulling power is on full display. The picaresque nature of Charlie’s adventures across America help oil this revolving door of A-list wattage, but the show is totally reliant on Lyonne and the quirks of modern small-town America. Johnson combines tropes such as the ascetic mob enforcer or the off-grid trucker, with more 21st-century considerations, like conspiracy listicles and sandwich TikTokers. The itinerant format might leave the show short on emotional attachments (unlike its most obvious analogue, Only Murders in the Building), but as a reverse-whodunit it’s satisfyingly pacy and pulpy.
In a way, Poker Face represents the perfect synthesis of Lyonne’s chronology-busting masterpiece, Russian Doll, and the newly established appetite for murder mysteries conducted with the marching band rhythm of the Coen Brothers or Edgar Wright. The plots might wrap themselves up a little too conveniently at times (and the writing involves the casual use of ableist slurs, something that American TV still seems unwilling to grapple with) but the anarchic spirit of Poker Face carries it through. As a reinvention of the hour-long mystery story, it manages reverence to its forebears with the challenge of delivering a distinctive new twist.
“Once upon a time in Denver,” growls Adrien Brody’s bejewelled casino owner, relating the origin story of our cardsharp hero. “She played with an almost supernatural infallibility,” he recounts, “like she was seeing through the cards…”
In Poker Face, America’s down and outs, its villains and wretches, line up before Charlie like players at the table. They say, in poker, that all you need is a chip and a chair, but when you’ve got Natasha Lyonne as a scenery-chewing private (well, public; nobody’s paying her) dick, you don’t need much luck.