Poker Face, like a Vegas cocktail waitress, effortlessly anticipated our desires and delivered them with flair, even before we revealed our hand. In the year 2023, audiences are becoming weary of morally ambiguous protagonists and their complicated plotlines. We are no longer interested in ambitious productions that seem to look down on television as a medium. Instead, we crave the familiar and comforting format of a weekly mystery to solve. We have had enough of “prestige” TV dramas.
The show Poker Face, featuring Natasha Lyonne as the character Charlie Cale who can detect lies, has impressive credentials comparable to any high-budget production. Rian Johnson, the creator of the show, is a well-known Hollywood director with a Star Wars movie that grossed $1 billion, two Oscar nominations, and three of the top Breaking Bad episodes to his credit. He is also responsible for reviving the ensemble-cast, Agatha Christie-inspired whodunnit genre with his films Knives Out and Glass Onion.
Poker Face is similarly nostalgic, but for a different kind of mystery tale. After going on the run from her casino bosses in a vintage Plymouth Barracuda, Charlie stumbles across a suspicious death in a new corner of the country each week, and uses her special lie-detecting abilities to uncover the truth. Or, as she puts it with characteristic insouciance: “I hear bullshit, I say bullshit … It’s a thing I have.”
These episodes are not traditional murder mysteries, but rather focus on the process of solving the crime – often referred to as “inverted detective stories.” The enjoyment comes from following the investigation rather than trying to deduce the killer’s identity (which is typically revealed early on). In a howcatchem, a compelling lead character is crucial since there is no central mystery to drive the plot. This character must be unique enough to be memorable but also likable enough to accompany the audience throughout the entire journey.
Between 1968 and 2003, the man known as Peter Falk portrayed the unkempt LAPD detective, Lieutenant Columbo. In her role as Charlie Cale, Lyonne exudes a similar coolness to Columbo, making her seem like his Xennial niece. She is such an obvious successor that we may need to see DNA proof before ruling out any relation between them.
What qualities define the perfect investigator? One of them is Lyonne’s trademark gravelly New York accent, which is on par with Puddy from Seinfeld and Bubble from Ab Fab as one of the most iconic TV voices of all time. Additionally, her fashion sense in her desert hometown consists of fringed vests, flared jeans, and Stevie Nicks-inspired hair.
The 1970s aesthetic in this show is not by chance. Instead, it pays homage to the iconic yellow font used in the opening credits and references the popular episodic series that Johnson, and many of us, were raised on. Shows such as Murder, She Wrote, The Rockford Files, Quantum Leap, and, of course, Columbo. Additionally, Lyonne looks especially stylish in her Elvis-inspired sunglasses. If she doesn’t win the Emmy for outstanding lead actress in January, I will personally file a lawsuit.
Lyonne is more than capable of carrying the show by herself, so it’s impressive that she doesn’t have to as Poker Face is overflowing with riches. The show features guest appearances from Lyonne’s former cellmate on Orange Is the New Black, Dascha Polanco, as well as fellow NYC trendsetter Chloë Sevigny as a heavy metal enthusiast. Along the way, Charlie meets drifters played by Oscar nominees Stephanie Hsu and Hong Chau, and 70s film legend Nick Nolte makes an appearance as a reclusive visual effects specialist. The diverse and unique locations include a Texas BBQ joint, a Tennessee go-kart track, a California retirement community, and a Colorado ski lodge.
Exploring various subcultures in America is a key aspect of the enjoyment of Poker Face. With such a strong foundation, it seems likely that Charlie could continue on indefinitely without ever running out of material. While season two is already planned, if Lyonne or Johnson ever grow weary of their nomadic lifestyle, it should be noted that Poker Face has the potential to be a successful UK adaptation, a rarity in the world of television. Just picture it: Maxine Peake as a fugitive bingo caller, cruising up and down the M6 in her Fiat Punto, solving crimes along the way. It would be a surefire hit!