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Poker Face Review: Natasha Lyonne Brings Much-Needed Charm to the Murder Mystery Genre

Lyonne riffs on Columbo in Rian Johnson's refreshing new Peacock series

Matthew Jacobs
Natasha Lyonne, Poker Face

Natasha Lyonne, Poker Face

Evans Vestal Ward/Peacock

If half of television feels like a murder mystery of some kind, how did it take so long to get a Columbo update? Poker Face is more riff than reboot, but the new Peacock show created by Knives Out director Rian Johnson and starring Natasha Lyonne is tailor-made for a time when bingeable criminal intrigue overwhelms the small screen. Borrowing the essential conceit of the long-running Peter Falk detective classic, this series injects charm — Lyonne's signature — into a genre that could use some. 

Instead of a whodunnit, Columbo was what's sometimes called a howcatchem. The same goes for Poker Face. Each episode spends roughly 15 minutes introducing characters and mapping out the murder one or more of them will attempt to conceal, after which Lyonne's amateur gumshoe Charlie Cale pieces together the puzzle that exposes the culprit(s). Columbo was a sleuth by trade, but Johnson has concocted an intricate biography for Charlie. She's a human lie detector notorious for backroom poker games where no one stands a chance. After fleeing a Las Vegas casino magnate (Adrien Brody) and his scuzzy enforcer (Benjamin Bratt), Charlie goes on the run. Wherever she hides out, elaborate homicide somehow follows. 

This is a Lyonne avatar through and through: loquacious, wry, streetwise, and crawling with pop-culture references, as seen in her career-redefining Netflix hits Orange Is the New Black and Russian Doll. She's not flexing different muscles here, but she doesn't need to. Inquisitiveness is Charlie's schtick, which is perfect for an actor whose charisma lies in her ability to seem both cynical and awestruck.


Poker Face


  • A fitting role for Natasha Lyonne
  • Clever storylines
  • The revolving door of A-list guest stars


  • Episodes can feel a tad long

Lyonne has found another creative match in Johnson, a savvy entertainer who hatches, with the help of writers like Alice Ju (The Other Two), Christine Boylan (Once Upon a Time), and Lyonne herself, clever scenarios that help Poker Face avoid mystery-of-the-week monotony. The episodes work as standalone sagas, but what unites them is the overarching threat Charlie faces. 

Granted, the logic police might not agree. How can one person traveling through New Mexico to escape a scoundrel who wants her dead happen upon so much chicanery? Were Johnson's mysteries less enveloping, that question might matter. Poker Face's format means fresh A-listers show up every time you press play, and therein lies the fun. Hong Chau plays a flighty trucker accused of killing a TikTok wannabe. Lyonne's longtime pal Chloë Sevigny storms in as a washed-up metal singer who'll do anything for a comeback. Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson are retirement-home hippies whose free-spirited facades hide a sketchy history. And how about Ellen Barkin and Tim Meadows chewing scenery as scheming dinner-theater actors? More, please. 

The thing about murder mysteries of the Knives Out and Columbo variety is that their contrivances risk shark-jumping at any moment. They can feel like the results of a screenwriter's workshop, stretching threads as far as possible to connect tangled narrative dots (see: the recent Knives Out sequel Glass Onion). Poker Face more or less avoids this trap. The scripts are snappy and surprising, foregrounding the warped humanity of even the vilest villain. It also looks far more elegant than a show of this nature demands. The vibrant Southwestern sunlight, captured by a team of cinematographers that includes Rap Sh!t's Christine Ng and Johnson's regular collaborator Steve Yedlin, adds an upbeat gloss.

Natasha Lyonne and Benjamin Bratt, Poker Face

Natasha Lyonne and Benjamin Bratt, Poker Face


Perhaps the best aspect of Poker Face is that its overall design is fairly straightforward. This isn't a social satire nestled inside genre conventions. It's refreshing to realize that the six episodes Peacock provided to critics ahead of the Jan. 26 premiere prioritized delight above all else. The show doesn't pat itself on the back for centering a woman who one-ups men or for casting actors of color in many guest roles. (The impressive roster includes Lil Rel Howery, Dascha Polanco, Stephanie Hsu, and Jameela Jamil.) Even with such heightened plots, there's a matter-of-factness on display. Charlie's sense of moral order — why let a reprobate run free when you can mastermind justice? — is the only fulcrum Poker Face needs. 

Johnson has said the show could go on infinitely. Makes sense: Murder, She Wrote, which also followed an amateur detective, lasted 12 seasons, and Columbo ran for 10. Charlie Cale may be too similar to Lyonne's other characters to make the impression that Jessica Fletcher or Lieutenant Columbo did, but this is a worthy use of the esteem Lyonne has generated as she hits middle age. Some episodes ramble on a bit long, but it's hard to mind when there's so much going for them. 

Premieres: Thursday, Jan. 26 on Peacock
Who's in it: Natasha Lyonne, Benjamin Bratt, Adrien Brody, Hong Chau, Judith Light, Chlöe Sevigny, Lil Rel Howery, Ellen Barkin
Who's behind it: Rian Johnson
For fans of: Columbo and Knives Out
How many episodes we watched: 6 of 10