'Poker Face' review: Old-fashioned murder mystery fun

Natasha Lyonne shines as a scrabbly sleuth in a down-to-earth throwback to classics like 'Columbo' and 'Murder, She Wrote'

Shoumik Hassin
Published : 4 Feb 2023, 01:30 PM
Updated : 4 Feb 2023, 01:30 PM

About 27 seconds into the pilot for Poker Face, I thought, "Oh, it's Natasha Lyonne in Columbo."

After four episodes, I admit I was wrong. It's Columbo plus Murder, She Wrote.

For younger readers, those two American murder mystery shows were iconic and beloved parts of the 70s and 80s TV landscape.

In Columbo, a schlubby, unassuming detective played by the great Peter Falk wheedled his way into the lives of the rich and famous before finding them guilty of murder. Murder, She Wrote, meanwhile, follows a mystery writer played by the inimitable Angela Lansbury, who solves an astonishing number of murders for a former English teacher.

Sure, those shows had mysteries, but much of the fun was hanging out with our leads. Columbo, the sly elf who catches his villains unawares, and Jessica Fletcher, the flinty, clever retiree who sees past the obvious answers. Both characters have an urgent need to stick their noses into other people's business and not let go of tiny contradictions until they've cracked a case.

Charlie Cale, Lyonne's character in Poker Face, is cut from the same cloth. Charlie's a living lie detector, instinctively sensing when someone is hiding the truth. When she was young, she tried to use her skill to gamble her way across America, but her luck ran out when a casino magnate sniffed out her ability and banned her from high-stakes games. At the show's start, she's settled into a comfortable life waitressing at the casino and living in a trailer at the edge of the Nevada desert. But, when a co-worker and friend dies under mysterious circumstances, she launches her own investigation.

Since Netflix's Russian Doll, Lyonne's had something of a career renaissance, and it's richly deserved. Like Falk and Lansbury, her presence is instantly likeable. The messy mop of hair, the voice that sounds like she's smoked every cigarette in California, and the easygoing energy of a friend you hang out with even though they owe you too much money. For another actor, such a huge superpower might have overwhelmed their performance, but Lyonne's vibe immediately signals that it hasn't actually made her life any easier.

That texture is what Poker Face adds to the otherwise faithful retread of the older shows. Like Columbo, the opening 15 minutes of Poker Face's episodes show the audience who committed the murder and how. The rest of each standalone episode shows the cat-and-mouse game between Charlie and the murderers as they try to outsmart each other. And, like Murder, She Wrote, Charlie seems to rack up a body count wherever she goes. But the difference, again, is in the texture.

Unlike the leads of the older shows, Charlie doesn't have a stable life. She drifts from place to place, temp job to temp job, just trying to stay afloat. And the murders she comes across aren't meticulously planned Rube Goldberg machines. They're crimes of passion and circumstance involving people on the lower rungs of the social ladder. The killings occur in grimy pubs, small trailers, and roadside convenience stores. Their perpetrators and victims feel like real people too, even if some are a bit goofy. In that way, showrunner Rian Johnson (Knives Out, Glass Onion) isn't just borrowing from the TV shows of the 70s, but also from the grit and groundedness of the decade's American cinema. The show is about deaths the police are likely to file away with little care or attention. But, for one reason or another, Charlie is there. And she won't let things lie.

Not that she can do a whole lot about it. One of the smarter wrinkles in the show is that Charlie isn't an official investigator. She's actually avoiding contact with the police. This gives her opponents an edge often missing from most cop procedurals, tricking the viewer into thinking that this time, maybe, the killers – a rogues' gallery of scenery-chewing guest stars too fun to spoil – might just get away with it.

The downside, though, is that some of the writing doesn't land. Since his debut film Brick, Rian Johnson's mysteries have a touch of twee cuteness that can be grating. Glass Onion, especially, pushed it to cartoonish extremes with its goofy characters and on-the-nose socio-political commentary. Poker Face is more restrained, but a MAGA-loving dog and an army veteran sandwich artist are some touches that could have audiences rolling their eyes. And there are similarly 'cute' bits of plotting here and there that might rub some the wrong way.

Those trained on the heavily serialised nature of modern prestige TV could also struggle with the slim connections between each episode. While an overarching story kicks off in the pilot, it's used as more of a garnish than a significant part of the meal.

For those who can look past those shortcomings, Poker Face is a very entertaining watch and a bit like slipping into that old shirt you always sleep in – comfortable, undemanding, and very nostalgic.

This article is part of Stripe, bdnews24.com's special publication focusing on culture and society from a youth perspective.