Most typical detective shows are all about “whodunit.” The lead character pieces together clues to ultimately unmask a person who committed a crime. The new Peacock show Poker Face, however, takes that inspiration and evolves it. Each story, confined to its own episode, shows you who committed the crime in the very first scene. The mystery then becomes not “whodunit,” but much, much more.
Created by Knives Out mastermind Rian Johnson, Poker Face debuts on Peacock January 26. It tells the story of Charlie (Natasha Lyonne), who has an uncanny, unexplained ability to tell if someone is lying. Not what they’re lying about. Not what the truth is. Just that they’re lying about something. It’s been a useful tool throughout her life, but after the events of the first episode, Charlie is forced to hit the road and keeps finding trouble along the way.
The best thing about Poker Face is how much it revels in structure. The only rule is that you have to watch the first episode first. That episode, written and directed by Johnson, sets up Charlie’s world and explains why she’s traveling across the country (while also having her own murder mystery woven in). After that, though, while watching in order is probably better for an overall understanding of the sometimes-there, sometimes-not overarching story, each episode is a self-contained unit. Charlie is at a specific place and, by the end, she’ll solve a crime and move on to another place. Plus each episode (Peacock provided the first six of 10 to io9 for review) takes place somewhere entirely unique and interesting: a casino, a dinner theater, a retirement community, a truck stop, a barbecue joint, even a rock music tour. Discovering where each episode is taking place and exploring it is the first of Poker Face‘s many delights.
Then, as we mentioned, you see a person killed. You don’t know who it’s going to be right at the start, but you do see it. So the viewer knows that piece is going in; what you don’t know is how Charlie fits in, which she always does in some kind of surprising way revealed in the second act. You also don’t know how she’s going to figure out what happened or, ultimately, what she’s going to do about it. That’s the most brilliant part. If this woman on the run just kept calling the police about murders, they might get suspicious. The people looking for her might also find her. So Charlie has to not just uncover a crime we are already privy to, she has to figure out how to resolve it in a safe, satisfying way.
That each and every episode of Poker Face contains all those mysteries creates a rewarding level of expectation. The knowledge that something is coming, but you can’t quite figure out how. There’s a lovely comfort in it and, as a result, discovering the different ways Johnson and his team work Charlie into the story, and the fun, innovative ways she figures out the crimes provide the show’s next set of delights.
Then there’s the cast. Natasha Lyonne, of course, is the main throughline and gives Charlie this unique alchemy of kindness, humor, swagger, and fear. Charlie’s very confident. After all, she knows if you’re lying or not. But also, she’s looking over her shoulder (because of that first episode) and trying to keep herself safe. Her problem is that she’s also selfless and keeps risking herself to do what’s right. Beyond just Charlie, every single episode is filled with a who’s who of guest stars, which is yet another joy of watching the show. You simply never know who is going to show up, if they’re good or bad, or what their relationship with Charlie is going to be. (We included the full guest list here if you want to take a look.)
And so, with that stellar central performance, hugely famous and talented actors surrounding it, and Johnson’s multitude of mysteries all driving each episode, you can’t help but fall in love with Poker Face. It’s a show that, much like the detective shows of the 1970s and ’80s that inspired it, you could pop on and watch all day, never, ever be bored, and always have a huge smile on your face.
Poker Face debuts on Peacock January 26 with its first four episodes. The remaining six will be released each week. Check it out here.
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