Review: Poker Face – Rian Johnson’s Whodunnit Genius Strikes Again

In trying times it is helpful to have things to rely upon and in recent years we have had Rian Johnson producing excellent modern whodunnits – Knives Out gave us one of the cleverest and most original murder mysteries in decades and Glass Onion was a brilliant satire and bizarre murder mystery. But years may go by before we see more of Benoit Blanc, so Rian Johnson gave us a murder mystery TV show: Poker Face.

What’s Going On?

Natasha Lyonne as Charlie //credit: Poker Face, Peacock

Poker Face stars Natasha Lyonne as Charlie and early on it is revealed she has an unusual ability – she can tell when people are lying, essentially 100% of the time. As Charlie points out this is not as helpful as it sounds, the best practical use was with playing cards but a mobster put a stop to that and she now works in his casino as a waitress. Events transpire that Charlie must go on the run and every episode she is in a new place with a new cash-in-hand job. Poker Face follows the formula of Columbo in that we see the murder at the start of the episode, we see who did it and why and the elaborate plot they concoct to get away with it. And they would have too if it wasn’t for that meddling Natasha Lyonne. The show is mainly Charlie working out how the murder was done and then being able to prove it – she may know but she needs “cop proof”. It seem odd that every week Charlie finds herself dealing with another murder…and it is, but you have to just go with that.

In Front of the Camera

Luis Guzman guest-starring in Poker Face //credit: Peacock

Now as just about the rest of the cast changes every episode the show rests on Natasha Lyonne. Fortunately, Lyonne is a great actor and immensely charming and likeable. Perhaps known to many for her role in American Pie Lyonne has worked on many amazing projects such as starring in But I’m A Cheerleader and Russian Doll, the Groundhog Day-style Netflix hit.

Every episode features an array of talent – Adrian Brody, Chloe Sevigny, Tim Blake Nelson, Luis Guzman, Jameela Jamil all-star in episodes, and that is just the beginning. It seems like great actors have been throwing themselves at Johnson to either be murdered or a murderer.

Behind The Scenes

Adrien Brody is regretting not appearing in more episodes of Poker Face //credit: Peacock

Rian Johnson is credited as the show’s creator and writes and directs a number of episodes but there are a number of writers and directors who work on the show.

Does It Work?

Poker Face is great television – not perhaps like Succession or Better Call Saul – but in an immensely enjoyable episodic TV made by talented people to a high standard. Each episode is different and often they focus on different things – not simply how was the murder done, in one episode the writing of a song is as much as a mystery as the murder. The show does a lot to play with your expectations – people we assume to be villains aren’t and people we assume to be nice are shown to be deadly. People are complicated and Charlie often makes friends not just with the victim or the wrongfully accused but the murderers themselves, there are no caricatures of bad people who are thoroughly unpleasant.

Natasha Lyonne as Charlie //credit:Peacock

Natasha Lyonne is fantastic and you feel like you could watch her for hours just chatting to people. Unsurprisingly, for someone who can tell when people are lying, Charlie has a cynical aspect to her, yet will repeatedly put herself in harm’s way to help others but Lyonne is only the best part of a great show.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

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Richard Norton

Gentleman, podcaster and pop culture nerd, I love talking and writing about pretty much all pop culture.