If you went in and digitally removed all the smartphones from Peacock’s new series Poker Face, it could’ve aired right alongside Columbo and The Rockford Files in a 1970s NBC primetime lineup. Co-creators Rian Johnson and Natasha Lyonne dust off a creaky old format — the guest-star-studded mystery of the week — and put a stylish spin on it, delivering a noir-flavored, tongue-in-cheek homage to TV detective shows past. Even if you weren’t born back then, though, Poker Face (debuting this Thursday; I’ve seen the first five episodes) is still a quirky and clever good time, powered by another charmingly irreverent performance from Lyonne.
She stars here as Charlie Cale, a beer-swigging cocktail waitress in Reno who has a unique gift: She can always tell if someone is lying. (Charlie calls out “Bulls–t” so often, it practically becomes her catchphrase.) That skill comes in handy in certain situations, but it can get her in trouble, too, and after things get messy in Reno, she hits the road in her vintage Plymouth Barracuda, stumbling into more murders and more colorful weirdos along the way. She’s on the run from a vengeful casino boss, so she can’t stay in any one place for too long, but she can’t help using her gift to bring killers to justice.
Each episode of Poker Face is a new story with a new mystery and new suspects, with Lyonne’s Charlie serving as the connective tissue. We see the full crime first, just like we did on Columbo, so there’s no real suspense about whodunit, but we still want to see how Charlie will figure it out using her superhuman lie-detecting skills. After a premiere that’s densely packed with clues and twists, Poker Face settles into an easygoing groove, with a laidback Lyonne setting the tone. We do get a bit of continuing plot with the aftermath from Reno, but mostly, each week starts fresh, like its own mini movie — which is honestly a nice break from today’s overly serialized TV dramas.
Johnson, fresh off the Netflix hit film Glass Onion, directs the premiere, and his camera dances with nimble pans and zooms. The scripts are a hard-boiled throwback spiked with terse threats and dry humor, but Charlie plays the snarky, skeptical fly in the ointment, almost like a modern-day time traveler who finds herself in a ’70s crime drama. As the series’ lone star, Lyonne has to carry the whole thing on her shoulders — and she does so magnificently. She’s a brassy, ballsy delight as Charlie, croaking out accusations and one-liners with her signature Noo Yawk rasp. (She can even share a scene with a dog and make it work.) I should note that after being thoroughly charmed by her on Orange Is the New Black and Russian Doll, I’d pretty much watch Lyonne read the phone book, so your mileage here may vary.
Your tolerance for Poker Face‘s languid pace may vary as well: Episodes routinely run well over an hour, and the extended opening scenes detailing each week’s crime can run close to 20 minutes before Charlie even gets to town. Naturally, some of the mysteries are more intriguing than others, but the guest stars are always a treat: Hong Chau as a street-smart trucker, John Ratzenberger as a kindly car mechanic, Chloe Sevigny as a Courtney Love-esque rocker chick desperate for another hit single. (The fifth episode, with Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson as former hippies in a nursing home, is a particular highlight.) Poker Face doesn’t break any new ground, to be sure, but the ground it does cover is still plenty fertile, it turns out. We may have more than three TV channels to choose from these days… but sometimes it’s nice to revisit a classic.
THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE: Poker Face is a loving throwback to ’70s detective shows that works, thanks to a winning lead performance from Natasha Lyonne.