When it was announced that Rian Johnson (the mind behind the Knives Out movies, cult classics like Brick and Looper, and perhaps the most controversial entry in the Star Wars franchise) had developed a new streaming detective procedural in the vein of Columbo and Murder, She Wrote, our ears were perked.
Johnson has become known for injecting freshness into well-known genres and tropes, so we couldn’t wait to see how he would revitalize the almost-defunct case-of-the-week television show. And boy did he deliver.
In Peacock’s Poker Face, Natasha Lyonne stars as Charlie Cale, a former gambler on the run for double crossing a prominent casino magnate, with a very special gift: she’s a human lie detector, able to tell with surprising accuracy when someone is not telling the truth.
As she moves from city to city, death and murder seem to follow her along, and she keeps stumbling in the middle of various small town crimes, where her gift proves to be very useful in finding the culprits.
If that premise was enough to hook you, below are five reasons why the show became an immediate favorite of ours. The show just dropped its season finale last week, so now’s the perfect time to get caught up.
It Brought Episodic Television Back
The rise of limited series and binge-watch culture has made most of television today into a heavily serialized and interconnected viewing experience. Something you have to watch week to week (or hour to hour in one single sitting) in order to fully grasp. And although Poker Face has a running storyline, its episodes are also entirely self-contained.
Evoking classic procedurals from the ’70s and ’80s, every episode sees Charlie arriving at a new location, encountering a different crime, guiding it towards the solution, and then leaving. She is on the run, after all. No cliffhangers, no real need to remember everything that happened before.
This also allows for every episode to have its own distinctive visual style and tone. Episode 8 (which Lyonne directed herself) or the finale (directed by Zola’s own Janicza Bravo) are great examples of episodes with riskier, sometimes even experimental vibes.
Natasha Lyonne Has Never Been Better
Ever since But I’m A Cheerleader! in the late ’90s, we have known that Lyonne is an incandescent performer, just waiting for the right project to properly utilize her many talents. Shows like Orange Is the New Black and the excellent Russian Doll have let her shine plenty, but Poker Face takes her to a new level.
Charlie—in many ways like Lyonne herself—is irresistibly magnetic. She easily befriends every person she meets, and somehow turns self-pity, assertiveness, and a slight overconfidence into the most charming and compelling character traits.
She is equally funny and emotional, and the show would just not work without her gravitas pulling everything else into her. And, let’s face it, there’s always a subtle hint of queerness into every performance she gives.
Every Episode Is Its Own Mini-Puzzle to Solve
Yes, there’s a murder, death, or crime to be solved in every episode of the show. But Poker Face also uses a signature structure to let the audience in and play detective ourselves.
The first act always shows the crime being played out exactly as it happened. So it’s less a whodunit (we know every episode who the responsible person is) and more a “How will Charlie solve it?”
As you learn the beats and quirks of the show, it becomes a game to guess how Charlie got implicated into the lives of the characters of the week, the lies that they are saying to each other (and how Charlie will catch them), and what small elements that we saw at first will come back as essential clues. It’s not only smart, it’s plenty of fun.
The Actresses! Oh, the Actresses!
If you are someone that enjoys when a character actress is given the chance to claim the spotlight, this is the perfect show for you. With new suspects, victims, and colorful characters coming in and out every episode, the guest actors in Poker Face are simply an embarrassment of riches.
Hong Chau as a lesbian truck driver in episode 2? She’s there! Chloe Sevigny as a faded punk star willing to do anything to get back on the charts in the fourth one? You bet! Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson as two ex-convict Flower Children wreaking havoc in a retirement home? Ellen Barkin as a former sitcom star mounting her comeback in community theater? Cherry Jones as the director of a VFX company with a dark past? Stephanie Hsu as a stoner snowboarder? Clea DuVall as someone from Charlie’s past that she goes to as a last resource?
They are all here, and they are all fantastic.
Plenty of Boy Eye Candy, As Well
Yes, Poker Face is an incredible feat of acting, writing, and just pure old-fashioned entertainment. But there’s no reason why we can’t also admire the eye candy that it’s giving.
Riverdale’s Charles Melton stars as a race car driver so oily that you’ll be rooting for him to win, even if you perhaps really shouldn’t.
Charlie has an affair with a mysterious lumberjack (played by Chris Cortez) towards the end of the season that had us contemplating leaving everything and moving to the snowy Colorado mountains.
Heck, even Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the douchiest white collar criminal, or Benjamin Bratt as the bodyguard following on Charlie’s trail get heart eye emojis from us. Because it truly wouldn’t be a murder mystery if one did not want to heavily make out with at least one of the suspects.
All 10 episodes of Poker Face‘s first season are now streaming on Peacock.
From ‘Clue’ to ‘Scream,’ the whodunit has long been a favorite of mystery seekers, but the genre holds a special place in the hearts of queer movie lovers.