Rian Johnson’s 2019 mystery “Knives Out” features an unlikely but convenient fact: The protagonist vomits whenever she lies.
“Poker Face,” Johnson’s new Peacock series, takes this preoccupation — and the director’s longtime love of mysteries and detectives — to its logical conclusion. Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne), the amateur sleuth in this case-of-the-week procedural, is a human lie detector.
The show, which debuted last week, is delightful, nostalgic, surprising and funny. Animated by quick and effective world-building, it uses Lyonne’s particular star power to great effect. As detective fiction, however, the results are mixed.
Charlie first uses her gift as a gambler and then — when she hits the road to escape some casino thugs — as an itinerant amateur detective. The format suits Lyonne down to the ground, and so does the show’s vintage aesthetic; she looks exactly right in a shag haircut and 1969 Plymouth Barracuda as she fights with a stray dog and haggles with old-timey mechanics.
Despite the smartphones, this is a period piece — “Thelma and Louise,” if the latter were episodic, mostly untraumatized and sex-free. But if that film was grieving, among other things, how unavailable the ultra-American thrill of being on the road was to women, Charlie encounters no such difficulty. The world is not against her. She is neither disciplined nor punished, and her past doesn’t torment her overmuch. (Except for the killer after her, of course.)
She therefore achieves, in spades, what male figures in this sort of role can generate more easily: an appealingly casual combination of openness, slouchiness, curiosity and charm that doesn’t lead to sexual violence or even (in most cases) sexual interest.
The pleasure of watching Charlie move through the world unvexed is no accident. Lyonne told the New York Times she admired “female filmmakers where it doesn’t feel like she was hemmed in by this necessity of telling ‘a girl’s story.’” There’s a plea in there — not for genderlessness, exactly, but for a freedom of narrative movement that femaleness, as conventionally written, impairs.
And move Charlie does! Each episode takes place in a specific, reasonably well-rendered world: a dead-end town where a Subway sandwich artist (Brandon Micheal Hall) tries to build his brand as a TikTok star, while a depressive mechanic (Colton Ryan) spies on a gas station attendant (Megan Suri), or a popular barbecue stand in Texas run by two brothers (Larry Brown and Lil Rel Howery) and one of their wives (Danielle Macdonald). There’s a heavy-metal band barely coasting on a long-ago hit (featuring Chloë Sevigny and the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle), an intrusive female trucker (Hong Chau) and a local theater production starring washed-up stars (Tim Meadows and Ellen Barkin).
The victim’s universe is always introduced first. We meet the principals, see the murder, then rewind to the moment Charlie wanders into the frame. The conditions bringing her into these worlds aren’t always exactly credible, but neither are the number of murders in Jessica Fletcher’s Cabot Cove or Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead. It’s easy enough to suspend disbelief, and the resulting interactions are so enjoyable that I sometimes find myself resenting the engine of the story — the murder itself.
Because here’s the thing about making your detective a superhero (which Johnson jokingly conceded he has in an interview with Io9): it saps narrative tension. You could say that about showing the murder upfront too, but that’s been done before and done well. That’s what “howcatchems” such as “Columbo” — one of Johnson’s touchpoints for this series — specialize in.
Still, the rewards of watching a detective solve mysteries are usually expository: that thrilling moment during the investigation or in the final act’s grand reveal when what seems like magic is revealed to be well within a human’s ability to detect. That’s missing when the detective actually is magic. It’s a bit deflating — a cheat code.
There are workarounds for this, and at first it seemed like Johnson’s was to creatively reroute the viewer’s problem-solving impulse. In the first episode, at least, the mystery viewers were trying to solve was, When did Charlie figure it out? The show is called “Poker Face,” after all, and Charlie has a good one throughout much of the pilot. (It’s so good that I ended up re-watching to spot the moment when her face betrays that she knows.) It’s interesting to watch the lie detector lie. But Charlie doesn’t bluff that much in subsequent episodes. Her confrontations tend to be blunt.
The premise could deliver other thrills — specifically, watching Charlie trap (rather than merely expose) the murderer. This is promising at first. Charlie’s first antagonist (played by Adrien Brody) knows she’s a human lie detector, so he frames his responses accordingly. She, too, phrases her questions with great care. They joust! It’s fun. Almost lawyerly. But this, too, mostly drops out of subsequent episodes. If this is a “howcatchem” rather than a “whodunnit,” it doesn’t usually deliver particularly satisfying traps.
“Poker Face’s” selective faithfulness to old, successful formulas sometimes constrains it. The show delivers clues, for instance, with almost hysterical efficiency. Any detail someone mentions — the height of a ceiling, how a trap door works — turns out to be relevant. It’s all guns on mantels all the time. So much so that when one BBQ brother says he likes to use every part of the animal to honor its sacrifice, it feels a tad self-referential. And unfortunate, since the clues are the least interesting thing about the show. We know who did it! So the moments when “Poker Face” slows down to breathe (as when Charlie chats with self-styled “revolutionaries” in an old folks’ home or exchanges barbs with a trucker) are pretty priceless.
Johnson knows this; he told the New York Times that what he appreciated about “Columbo” was “watching [Peter] Falk be Falk every single week. You’re tuning in to see Columbo and the guest star interact with each other and hang out.” This is correct, so it rankles that inessential plot mechanics deprive Lyonne and Sevigny (for instance) of more screen time together.
It’s ironic that the specifically magical features of “Poker Face’s” premise produce a distinctly unmagical, ploddingly bureaucratic frame: Charlie knows the truth, so now she needs to find evidence to prove it. That can’t help but be a little bit dull.
Luckily, the show is not. Lyonne’s wisecracking irrepressibility is a pleasure to watch, the guest stars are mostly terrific, and whenever the show returns to Johnson’s thematic interest in lying, it shimmers.
Charlie dislikes the theater, for instance (it’s lies!), so there’s a particularly wonderful moment when her eyes well up with tears because an actor — the ultimate liar — produced a moment that felt real.
Even to her.
Poker Face returned Thursday on Peacock. New episodes debut weekly.