Johnson has already proven himself as a master of the whodunit genre with Knives Out and Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, but Poker Face galvanizes the same formula as Columbo with the “howcatchem” style. This inverted story lets the audience in on the murderous acts in the first half of the episode before pulling back the focus to reveal that Charlie has been just on the sidelines, and now she has to solve the murder. Her human lie detector trick does a lot of the heavy lifting, but Charlie’s street smarts, dumb luck, and gumption get her through most of the more difficult parts of sleuthing.
With Johnson venturing into episodic storytelling for the very first time, Poker Face also allows him to work alongside an impressive slate of talent—both in front of and behind the camera. Johnson is in the writer/director seat for the premiere of the series, which sets the stage for Charlie’s unique skill set and dire situation, before passing the baton to a long list of talented writers and directors for the rest of the season (or at least the five episodes we’ve seen). Each creative brings their own unique vision to Poker Face, but Johnson’s guiding vision is ever-present as Charlie sets out on her cross-country adventure.
Whenever Natasha Lyonne is involved in a project, audiences know they’re in for a good time. From Orange is the New Black to Russian Doll, everything Lyonne touches is gold—and a cult classic in the making. With Poker Face she brings a familiar street-wise attitude to the lead, but where her previous iconic roles were often dubiously amoral, Charlie is a bleeding heart in the best way. She cares deeply about everyone she meets; whether they’re old friends, colleagues, or someone she crosses paths with. She actively wants to see the best in people, even when she knows they’re lying straight to her face. It’s this trait that makes Charlie such a compelling character—she’s been through shit, but she hasn’t let it change her. Like with Johnson’s previous heroines (namely, Marta and Helen), Charlie is just trying to get by, and the gig economy is what’s helping her fund her journey to the East Coast. Each new episode brings a new quick job, and a new set of odd-ball characters she has to contend with. It’s a joy to see Lyonne go toe-to-toe with an impressive cast list of guest stars.
From the who’s who of cameos to the very lived-in atmosphere, Poker Face is a refreshing return to the glory days of television. It may be on a streamer, and it may be reduced to a 10-episode “limited series” style season (with the potential for more), but everything about the series harkens back to an era of television that remains a mainstay around the world. Poker Face feels like syndicated television—it feels like a series you would find yourself watching while your car is in the garage getting its oil changed or the comfort-bringing and ever-bingeable reruns you’re glued to in the hospital waiting room. Streaming may have changed the way that we watch series, but it’s a delight to see that creatives like Johnson haven’t let that change the way they approach storytelling. If Knives Out was a love letter to whodunnits, then Poker Face is every bit the love letter to the syndicated howcatchems of yesteryear.
Speaking to that old-school charm, each hour-long episode of Poker Face brings Charlie face-to-face with another murderous mystery to solve—pitting her against the guest star of the week in a race against time to figure out how the murder was committed—before skedaddling onto her next pit stop. While some streaming series strive to make themselves feel like “a really long movie” this series delivers individual stories neatly packaged into each episode, while still slowly drawing a throughline between them, as Charlie’s own dire situation draws near.
Poker Face is another royal flush for Johnson, proving once again that he’s the maestro of modern mysteries. Columbo, you’ll always be famous, but Charlie Cale is about to give you a run for your money. This series has everything — from a killer cast, deliciously clever dialogue, smartly delivered mysteries, and a creative team to die for. Peacock, it’s time to up the ante and bet on this series’ success. Poker Face has the potential to not only become the best series of 2023 but also inspire the industry to see the benefit of episodic storytelling that draws audiences into the glorious, nostalgia-filled realm of howcatchems again.
Poker Face premieres on January 26 exclusively on Peacock with four episodes, followed by a new episode streaming Thursdays.