REVIEW: ‘Poker Face’ Is Natasha Lyonne and Rian Johnson’s New ‘Columbo’
5/5 lotto tickets
There is nothing like a mystery television show. They are some of the most long-running television shows of all time for a reason, and Columbo was one of the best there ever was. The show was often carried by star Peter Falk’s energy alone, and while the mysteries were often explained to us right up front, we still loved tuning in to see how Columbo got to the end. And now we have our modern-day answer to Peter Falk’s energy with the master of murder mysteries leading the charge: Poker Face.
The format of a “how-catch-em” versus a whodunnit is simple: You already sort of know what happened with a how-catch-em and you’re just along for the ride of how they get caught. And that’s basically what we’re doing with Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne) in the new series from Knives Out writer/director Rian Johnson.
Poker Face takes us through Charlie’s life as someone who can detect a lie outright. “Bullshit,” she mutters each time she smells a lie on someone, and the trick is to figure out why they’re lying or how. In some episodes, we get to see the full setup of the crime and know exactly how it went down. Other times, we’re left a little in the dark. But the series is a perfect return to the shows like Columbo before it, in that we’re so in love with the one solving the mystery, we’re fully on board with whatever information the show gives us.
Sometimes, you don’t realize what you miss until it is gone. And the minute that Poker Face started, I was reminded of how good the idea of a “how-catch-em” is and letting Rian Johnson, Nora and Lilla Zuckerman, and Lyonne lead the charge creates a perfect team to bring this genre back to me.
We needed a new Columbo, and we got Charlie
Charlie Cale (Lyonne) is a no-nonsense kind of girl, but she also doesn’t really care what you’re doing, as long as you don’t lie to her. The first episode we meet her, she’s working at a casino as a waitress, and when her friend and coworker (played by Dascha Polanco) is killed, she’s determined to find the answers she’s looking for. It sets off a series of murders coming to Charlie’s doorstep that she has to try to solve, all with her no bullshit detector, as it were.
While each episode has a completed story without reason for any of the other characters to return, we’re drawn back each episode for Charlie. It’s her energy and her take on the world that brings you back even though the last mystery was solved. Sure, there’s an overall story about Charlie and her connection to her past life, but it is not the driving force of each episode. It’s very serialized, and it works for the series because of how comfortable it feels.
The thing is: Natasha Lyonne’s energy is close enough to the energy that Peter Falk had just naturally that the show instantly has the same kind morbid comforting energy that Columbo had, but this time with Lyonne at the heart of it. And she fits in perfectly with Johnson’s directing and the writing from Nora and Lilla Zuckerman’s team.
New ep? New guest stars
Each episode has a new guest star who is in some way in contact with a murder. Charlie has to meet with them, figure out what their deal is, and then go from there in how she deals with it. And so it opens up a world of Rian Johnson’s favorite friends coming back to the show. As always, Noah Segan and Joseph Gordon-Levitt make an appearance, but it is also clearly getting around that no one does a murder mystery quite like Johnson.
The cast is absolutely stacked, with a guest star list of Adrien Brody, Benjamin Bratt, Cherry Jones, Chloë Sevigny, Ellen Barkin, Hong Chau, Jameela Jamil, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Judith Light, Lil Rel Howery, Luis Guzmán, Nick Nolte, Rhea Perlman, Ron Perlman, Stephanie Hsu, Tim Blake Nelson, Tim Meadows, and more. And it is so incredibly good (and so incredibly Johnson) and makes the show just so much better.
Poker Face premieres on January 26, 2023 and by god, is it great. There has not been a show like this, that has me begging for more episodes and on the edge of my seat each week, in quite some time, and of course it is Rian Johnson (and Nora and Lilla Zuckerman) who has brought it to me.
(featured image: Evans Vestal Ward/Peacock)
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