Poker Face Is the Working-Class Columbo We’ve Been Waiting For
Rian Johnson and Natasha Lyonne’s new detective show, Poker Face, is a brilliant working-class riff on Knives Out.
It’s a relief to watch Poker Face, the new hit mystery series created by Rian Johnson of Knives Out and Glass Onion fame, currently airing on Peacock. Not just because it’s a delightful show, made at a time when creating delightful experiences for audiences is a less and less common practice in the entertainment industry, but because it takes such a consistent interest in the lives of working people.
This premise involves a casino hotel cocktail waitress named Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne) who has an unusual gift for recognizing when people are lying, which is a lot of the time. Her automatic and earthy response to lying is “Bullshit,” and having such a reliable bullshit-detector is going to be a big help in solving murders once a week, as she’ll do Columbo-style in this ten-episode series.
“It’s not mystical,” she says of her astonishing gift. It’s just that she can tell “something’s off” when people lie. But it got her into big trouble once when she used her gift to win a series of poker games with middling-high rollers across the Midwest, bringing her to the attention of scary casino boss Sterling Frost Sr. (Ron Perlman). He got her blackballed from the poker circuit, but kept her on as a low-level employee. And because, as Charlie puts it, “I’m a dumbass,” without any major ambitions, who considers that she’s “doing just fine” living in a beat-up trailer in the desert, driving a crappy old car, drinking a lot of beer, and hanging out with coworkers in the friendliest, most casually bighearted fashion, she doesn’t mind being sidelined from her one shot at earning big money.
This seems hard to believe to Sterling Frost Jr. (Adrien Brody), who’s determined to show his dismissive father that he’s not such a fuckup as he seems. He’s got a daring plan for how to use Charlie to take down a high roller, who’s been holding private poker games in his suite. After all, how could Charlie not want to find another way to maximize such an incredible talent?
But Charlie’s initial reluctance makes all the sense in the world. Working-class people, in general, know how uncomfortably scary it is to try to make it big, money-wise or career-wise, because your already high-risk life gets even riskier, and you have no margin for error like rich people do. One major attempt at making it big, and you’re liable to be so exhausted you’re grateful just to sink back into the familiar world of scrounging.
And that’s mainly Charlie’s world going forward, involving different jobs and different working-class lives in different locations in every episode, once Episode One launches her into the plot of the rest of the series. Let’s just say that Sterling Frost Jr.’s plan doesn’t come off, and Sr. is determined to get his revenge on Charlie, who has to lam it out of town fast and hit the road, never to safely settle anywhere again. This way of life suits her very well, as it turns out. She’s naturally gregarious and makes friends easily, taking an interest in everybody — especially because, it seems, somebody’s always committing murder and lying about it. Solving such mysteries is right in her wheelhouse.
The structure of the episodes is always the same, up through the first four available on Peacock, anyway (the show goes to weekly episodes on Thursday nights starting this week). As in Columbo, we’re first introduced to the episode’s location and characters, and then watch as the murder is committed. Then Charlie enters and gets embroiled in the situation and gradually unravels the tricky, convoluted, almost-perfect murder, and arranges for the comeuppance of the murderer(s). The new wrinkle, added by Johnson, is that we flashback to when Charlie first arrived, well before the murder, and then see the location-plot-character introduction again, with her added into it.
At the end, she moves on to the next locale, always just a jump ahead of Sterling Frost Sr.’s enforcer, Cliff (Benjamin Bratt). But as long as Charlie can keep her crappy car running, she’s happy to keep moving, and always game to tackle another job in another town, though she’s not always good at them. That’s another way of, shall we say, honoring labor? Acknowledging that ordinary jobs are often very difficult. Charlie, for example, is absolutely rotten at working in the kitchen of a popular outdoor barbecue restaurant in Texas in Episode Three, “The Stall.” When she apologizes for having to leave the job abruptly, expressing the hope that her coworker can manage without her, he tells her jadedly that “it’ll probably be easier” to run the kitchen without her bungling presence.
As Charlie, a role tailored for her by Johnson, Natasha Lyonne is so good, so fresh, so disarming, it seems amazing that she’s been acting in lead roles for decades without ever becoming a truly major star. A successful child actor after a showy start on Pee-wee’s Playhouse (1986–1991), and a cult favorite from her teen years in movies like Slums of Beverly Hills (1998), But I’m a Cheerleader (1999), and American Pie (1999), she’s achieved TV series renown as the lead in Russian Doll (2019–present) and her Emmy-winning turn in Orange is the New Black (2013–2019). All that showbiz seasoning adds up as Lyonne brings gritty warmth, awesome comic timing, and a beguilingly husky smoker’s voice to the role of a lifetime in Poker Face. Charlie’s big hair — ratty, overdyed and damaged by desert heat and wind — has more specificity than entire characters on television.
She’s worthy of Johnson’s dramatic dolly-into-close-up in Episode One, as Sterling Frost Jr. recounts Charlie’s backstory, revealing that she’s one extraordinary cocktail waitress. As we close in on Charlie’s seemingly deadpan “poker face,” Lyonne reveals more and more sharp intelligence in her glinting brown eyes, a rare glimpse into her formidable capacities.
Generally, she keeps it under wraps, Columbo-style, playing up a shambling, round-shouldered gait, and a garrulous, beer-swilling amiability that relaxes everyone around her. Again, this is very astute — you could write a book about working-class dissembling and disguise, with people hiding their gifts much more often than they show them. It doesn’t do, as a rule, to reveal the best of yourself, while you deliver packages or mop floors or answer phones or wait tables. Nobody wants to see it or know about it, certainly not paying customers or arrogant bosses, and often not tired, harassed coworkers either. That’s why it so frequently comes as a surprise, discovering the deep knowledge, the unusual skills, the amazing backstories, of regular working people.
The casting is terrific throughout the series, with wonderfully vivid characters played by charismatic actors such as Hong Chau, Colton Ryan, John Ratzenberger, Brandon Micheal Hall, Lil Rel Howery, Danielle Macdonald, Chloë Sevigny, and Rian Johnson–regular Noah Segan. It’s worth tuning in just to see how quickly and colorfully characters are set up and played by great performers who can finally sink their teeth into something worth playing.
Johnson is a fantastic popular-form plotter and character-writer, which perhaps impresses me more than it does others who haven’t tried and failed to write fiction themselves. He’s the show’s creator and producer, though he only writes and directs some of the episodes. But the premiere, which he wrote and directed, is so memorably lively and well done, it’s like a throwback to Knives Out in its cinematic joys. You want to recommend it to everyone you know who has to work too hard, and is tired, and needs a refreshing break from their worries and woes.
Which, chances are, is everyone you know.