Midway through the “Poker Face” premiere, Adrien Brody’s smarmy casino boss recounts the legend behind Natasha Lyonne’s card-playing prowess. “She played straight,” Sterling Frost Jr. says. “And yet she played with an almost unnatural infallibility.” Soon, we find out why: Lyonne’s Charlie Cale always knows when someone’s lying. Whether it’s her best friend promising she’s fine after a fight with her husband or a stranger trying to bluff his way to the pot, Charlie sniffs out bullshit every time it drifts her way. “Just that something is off,” she says by way of explanation. “I can just tell.”
Charlie’s miraculous modus operandi — the ace up her sleeve, if you will — isn’t just a savvy twist for a TV detective; it also doubles as an explanation for how great storytellers should present a mystery. Even when watching a con, audiences don’t want to feel like they’re the mark (hence, “playing it straight”). But the omniscient raconteur can’t tip their hand, either. Confidence and control are key to chronicling a whodunit, howcatchem, or whybother (mini-mystery: which one of these is made-up?), and writer-director Rian Johnson shows a charming aptitude for both in projects like “Knives Out,” “Brick,” and now, “Poker Face.”
The devil’s in the details, as they say, and Johnson knows it — elevating lines of dialogue beyond exposition and conflict, shifting his camera with a tone-setting playfulness, and guiding his cast to engaged, lively performances. The series creator only directs two of the first six episodes (all that were screened for critics) in the 10-episode season, and though he serves as an executive producer and sole creator, his only writing credit appears on the pilot. Sadly, it shows. The “Poker Face” premiere sets such a high bar, the ensuing episodes (sans Johnson’s singular contributions) fall short of expectations, and what begins as a flush new detective series slowly reveals itself as a near-average crime procedural — the likes of which you may have found 10 years ago on the NBCUniversal cable network, USA.
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Let’s back up: “Poker Face” follows a tried-and-true format made famous by “Columbo” and utilized in everything from “Monk” to “The Sinner.” (Hey, both of those were on USA Network!) Each episode starts with the crime, viewers see who did it, and then the narrative jumps back in time to fill in the motivation, before Charlie puts the pieces together in the present. In a requisite twist for modern audiences who tend to reject episodic storytelling, this case-of-the-week structure is given a serialized component in Episode 1, “Dead Man’s Hand,” which acts as Charlie’s origin story.
Natalie (Dascha Polanco), a maid working with Charlie at Frost Casino, sees something she shouldn’t, tells the wrong people, and turns up dead. Who she talks to and how she’s killed is shown within the first 10 minutes, but Charlie is in the dark. After Natalie’s fateful evening, the story jumps back to the prior morning, when Charlie wakes up in her junky trailer, walks outside into the chilly morning desert, and kicks open a cooler full of Coors Light. Wrapped in a knee-length sweater with fuzzy boots to match, Charlie seems happy. Her oddball neighbor, John-O (who must be an Elvis impersonator, given his slicked-back, impossibly black hair), lays out their carefree conviviality with a sweet bit of gibberish: “Biddy’s in the kitty, shits in the litter, and the world is a beautiful place.”
Not for long. Soon, Charlie’s simple life is split between two high-stakes bet. The first is that she can find out what really happened to her friend, even when the powerful people involved keep shooing her away. That’s where Charlie’s supernatural instincts and plucky determination keep the odds in her favor, both of which also help with her second gamble: Sterling Frost Jr. wants Charlie to help him rig a card game. Turns out one of the casino regulars has been running private games and leaving Frost out of the loop. So with a little help from his “human lie detector,” Frost is gonna teach this high-roller a lesson: one that will reverberate throughout the gambling community.
Johnson masterfully navigates each plot, joyfully playing within each genre (a murder-mystery and a heist in the same episode!), while breaking from convention without depriving the audience of their anticipated entertainment. Shades of Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s” movies shine through in the brisk pacing and on the crowded casino floor, filled with colorful characters. But the Frost Casino is no Bellagio; it’s seedier, with scrapes on the suite’s card tables and ceilings that feel like they’re closing in on the players. Johnson revels in it. There’s a casual camaraderie to the staff workers, who take their breaks on broken chunks of concrete just outside the back door and share cheap drinks with their favorite colleagues, either on the clock or off it. The camera pans up to reveal what’s being pointed out, slides over to better convey the speaker’s point, and generally hovers through scenes with a mischievous purpose.
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The first episode is about as good as debuts get, spearheaded by Lyonne’s gravelly glamour — only she could make a trucker hat and shades look this chic — and earnest precision. The “Russian Doll” star can throw her uninhibited charisma around with the best of Hollywood, but an underappreciated aspect of her work is how striking she can be in close-up. Lyonne builds a believable bond with Natalie in a brief handful of scenes, and she’s asked to do the same, over and over, in ensuing episodes. Each time, it rings true, allowing audiences to bypass the “Die Hard 2: Die Harder” problem of, “How does the same thing keep happening to the same person?” (Charlie isn’t a cop, so stumbling into a case every week requires suspending a bit of disbelief.) Lyonne is the ideal lead for a weekly howcatchem (yup, that one’s real) — it’s just that the cases, and how they’re handled, can’t match the fire of her initial investigation.
Casting, by Mary Vernieu and Bret Howe, holds up its end. Benjamin Bratt, as the casino manager/enforcer, delivers one throwaway line in the pilot with such belabored conviction, you look forward to his sporadic returns throughout the season. Hong Chau and Chloë Sevignay get juicy parts worthy of their ever-evolving talents, while Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson form a tag-team duo worth fawning over. (Though my favorite duo is an unlikely one: Tim Meadows and Ellen Barkin, as two bitter former sitcom co-stars who reluctantly reunite for a new play.)
All this star power (with Lyonne leading the way) is enough to guarantee “Poker Face” will be, at least, an enjoyable diversion. But as the once-sharp dialogue dulls, the playful spirit fades, and the episodes overall regress to serviceable puzzle-solving, it’s hard to shake the feeling that “Poker Face” isn’t as good as it could’ve been. With four episodes left in the first season, the final few acts may reinvigorate the procedural. (Johnson’s good-luck charm, Joseph “Hourly Dong” Gordon-Levitt, is still due to appear.) But as it stands, the show’s “unnatural infallibility” can’t last.
“Poker Face” premieres Thursday, January 26 on Peacock with four episodes. Six more episodes will be released weekly.