Poker Face (Season 1)

By Aaron Isenstein

A Star Detective is Born

For several years, it felt as though the murder mystery genre was a product of its time. Those stories were hits back then, but save for the occasional Agatha Christie adaptation, few dared to make murder mystery films. But with Rian Johnson’s phenomenon Knives Out, the whodunit genre got the revitalization it desperately needed, and we were blessed with an influx of mystery comedies these past few years because of it. After last year’s Knives Out sequel, Johnson is already back with another whodunit delight! This time, he has blessed us in the form of a TV show starring the one and only Natasha Lyonne. Lyonne stars as our protagonist Charlie Cale. While she’s not a trained detective or anything, she has the unique ability to be able to tell when someone is lying. After ending up on the run from the mafia, Charlie finds herself having to solve various murder mysteries. In Poker Face, Johnson flips the script on the murder mystery by showing the murder right away. You don’t get to attempt (and let’s be honest, usually fail) to suss out the killer or anything like that. The main source of entertainment in this show comes from watching resident hot mess Charlie trying to figure out what the heck is going on.

Somehow, though, it works! The show is incredibly funny, and a lot of that has to do with the murders. The ways people are killed are often so hilariously ridiculous. Charlie is so funny and interesting that you forget that you already know who the killer is. You’re just drawn to agree with her solid line of reasoning. Unlike in the “Knives Out” movies, Johnson isn’t bound by a PG-13 rating, so he’s able to make his jokes as crude and profane as he wants. Without this, the show would not work. The main appeal of Natasha Lyonne is her blunt crudeness. In almost all of her work, she is extremely vulgar and an absolute mess, which works so well for her. Poker Face truly feels as though Rian Johnson has made a whodunit that fits her sensibilities as an actress. 

It’s impossible to not compare Poker Face to Knives Out, so I’ll get one simple fact out of the way: Charlie Cale is more interesting than Benoit Blanc. Benoit tends to fade into the background in favor of the wild cast of characters surrounding him, but Charlie never does. No matter how zany her peers are, she has the charm to always stick out and command the screen. Even though Charlie isn’t Lyonne’s best role, or even her most “Natasha Lyonne” role, it’s a role that is so clearly perfect for her. Charlie Cale honestly has all the makings of an instantly iconic detective.

As good as Lyonne is, though, the show can’t help but falter a bit due to its occasionally formulaic nature. Most episodes have too much exposition, so it feels like Charlie isn’t given enough time to solve each mystery (even though she eventually does, obviously). Most episodes also have this trite climax where someone says a variation of “Well, no one will believe you” and Charlie retorts with some version of “Actually, they will because of this proof I didn’t mention until now”. This isn’t the case for every episode, but for the episodes where it is, it can get somewhat obnoxious. 

Aside from Lyonne’s performance and the writing, the obvious standout to me is the score. Nathan Johnson’s score is so fun and sets the tone for the entire show. The guest stars are also incredible, from the ones like Hong Chau who do little but make the most of their episode to the ones like Chloë Sevigny who take up the screen and demand your attention. My particular highlight so far has to be Colton Ryan, who is rather subtle at times but explosively incredible. Clear a few spots in your 2023 Comedy Guest Actor/Actress predictions for this show!

Despite being formulaic, Poker Face is an absolute blast that I highly recommend! It doubles as a fun spin on the murder mystery genre and a wonderful throwback to the mysteries of television's past. Natasha Lyonne's Charlie Cale is a delightful addition to whodunit detective canon and stands out as one of the best thanks to her undeniable charisma.