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Original caricature by Jeff York of Natasha Lyonne in POKER FACE (copyright 2023).

Valentine’s is still over a week away, but Rian Johnson has delivered a love letter to television audiences with his new Peacock series POKER FACE. It’s a detective show that is a throwback to programs like COLUMBO and MURDER, SHE WROTE starring a never-better Natasha Lyonne as an amateur gumshoe solving murders wherever she goes. The show is a confection if there ever was one, a delicious delight every second it’s on-screen as a character study, procedural, and mystery all wrapped up in one.

Lyonne plays Charlie Cale, a woman with a preternatural ability to tell when people are lying. Hence, she’s hired by desperate casino manager Sterling Frost Jr. (Adrian Brody) to use her powers to read the faces of his gamblers and prevent them from carting away a fortune. The only problem when she’s hired is that Charlie can tell that Frost is lying repeatedly to her so she sets out to find what nefarious sins he’s hiding. It turns out he’s a first-class scoundrel, one who offed her best friend, a casino/hotel maid, because she found out some casino secrets he wanted to remain buried.

Don’t worry, I’m not giving away that much of the story – – the maid’s murder happens in the first 10 minutes of the pilot episode. Johnson is doing a riff on how the show COLUMBO showed audiences the killer committing murder in the first part of every show as well. The fun of it all came in those watching trying to figure out just how Peter Falk’s scruffy lieutenant would crack the case. It was also fun to watch the moral Columbo take down the arrogant one-percenters who were always his foils and thought they were above the law.

When Charlie cracks the case and nabs her boss in that first episode of POKER FACE, the fallout propels her out on the lam, trying to escape Frost’s fixer (Benjamin Bratt). Thus, the series gets its high-drama stakes as Charlie must not only solve murders in the towns she stumbles upon, but she must remain a few steps ahead of the Vegas hitman wanting to silence her forever.

That each town she stops over in contains an unsolved murder is where the MURDER, SHE WROTE vibe comes in. Like Jessica Fletcher, Charlie has a knack for showing up in places just as nefarious actions are about to be committed. It’s almost a ridiculously cheeky premise for such excessively cynical times as ours, but that’s where Johnson is so ingenious. Our vicious, partisan world screams out for such escapism, and POKER FACE is just that. Each episode serves as a self-contained mystery where Charlie nails the baddie and makes the world a better place. Playing along with her is as fun as it was with Columbo, with this show and that being more of a howdunnit than a whodunnit.

Lyonne’s Charlie, like Columbo, is a working-class mensch: sweet, cordial, and excessively polite. But underneath her adorable exterior of crazy hair, raspy voice, and chatty style, is one incredibly shrewd moralist. Charlie doesn’t suffer fools any more than liars, and she applies her craft to each crime with laser focus. At times, Johnson has Lyonne even vamp some of Falk’s scruffy mannerisms as Charlie closes in on her prey. Lyonne and Johnson deserve Emmys for what they’re doing here. The show is clever, breezy, a hoot and a half, but also, incredibly righteous too.

Johnson’s dialogue crackles, as it did in KNIVES OUT and GLASS ONION. He also employs plenty of flashbacks that serve as cheeky rug pulls, and he paces each entry with a rollicking energy from start to finish. The filmmaker has also cast actors against type here, letting the likes of likable players such as Lil’ Rel Howery, Chloe Sevigny, Judith Light, and S. Epatha Merkerson have a field day getting their nasty on. They’re among the badasses in the first five episodes, with five more to come in this freshman series.

Oh, and as Columbo was fond of saying…just one more thing. Johnson is not only one of Hollywood’s best creative forces, but he’s also a searing moralist as well. Charlie may be quirky and adorable, but she’s also a virtuous do-gooder, exacting justice like a champ in a world that needs it. Johnson can make claims to being our modern Agatha Christie, for sure, but he may also be the closest thing we’ve got to Rod Serling today as well. Each episode of POKER FACE serves as an exceedingly clever morality play, one that should be appointment television as each new episode drops on Thursday.

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