Are you ready for another murder-of-the-week TV show?
Rian Johnson has had great success playing with the murder mystery genre in his “Knives Out” films, so it was seemingly only a matter of time before he came for the TV detective drama.
The director, fresh off “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” (for which he was nominated for a best-screenplay Oscar Tuesday), brings his off-kilter approach to new Peacock series “Poker Face” (Thursdays, ★★★ out of four), starring Natasha Lyonne.
Lyonne (“Russian Doll”) plays an average Jane with a penchant for solving murders as she travels across the country. It’s a quaint, almost simplistic take on the detective genre that mostly delivers on the promise of its creator and star. Perhaps a little too long and plodding in parts, “Poker” overall is a fun ride, with plenty of room for twists, turns and surprises, and guest appearances by Hollywood favorites, from Adrien Brody to Chloë Sevigny to Hong Chau.
There are no knives out in “Poker,” just a lot of sarcastic asides from unlikely detective Charlie Cale (Lyonne, in all her growly, guttural glory), a former poker player with the uncanny ability to tell whether people are lying.
This gets her in trouble with some dangerous people, and she heads out in her beat-up muscle car, on the run from a heartless enforcer for a casino (Benjamin Bratt), who shows up occasionally as he hunts her down. But being a “human lie detector” comes in handy when she trips into murder after murder in new towns over the course of the 10-episode series (first four episodes are streaming this week). She makes friends, makes enemies and solves mysteries the cops won’t or can’t. And she does it all while maintaining a running commentary of misanthropy and a wit drier than a good martini.
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“Poker” involves a certain suspension of disbelief. Charlie’s lie-detecting ability is basically a superpower, and the number of murders she comes across in her travels is uncanny, to say the least. But hey, lucky breaks and preternaturally talented investigators are TV staples that date all the way back to “Columbo,” which Johnson says partly inspired his new series.
The case-of-the-week format is also a tale as old as time, although it might seem novel to viewers used to the more serialized told on streaming services these days. Johnson plays with the formula by making the murders not mysteries at all except to Charlie – each episode opens with the murder, revealing the culprit, and then flashes back to Charlie’s point of view of the events, followed by her haphazard investigations. The structure of the story forces Johnson to find surprises in other places: the killers’ motive, how they covered it up, or just how lucky Charlie is to stumble in and figure it out (without getting killed herself).
“Poker” drags in some places, which is a shame. The episodes are all just a hair too long as if Johnson was trying to split the difference between making mystery films and TV episodes. But still, the novelty of learning who committed the crime before Lyonne’s Charlie even comes into focus in each episode doesn’t wear off.
The appeal of “Poker” is in its nostalgia and simplicity. The series is unpretentious, the scripts aren’t rushed and Charlie makes a rather lackadaisical hero. Those looking for the fiery chaos of “Glass Onion” might be disappointed, but the series scratches a different itch. A leisurely, yawning itch on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
And if I was lying about that, Charlie would be the first to know.
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Story Credit: usatoday.com