To have a poker face is to be entirely inscrutable — free to lie without the threat of detection, free even to tell outrageous truths without betraying a hint of self-consciousness. Which makes it a peculiar and potentially ill-fitting name for Poker Face, a TV mystery series about a smugly complacent cocktail waitress named Charlie who just happens to be a human lie detector. But Charlie herself — played by Natasha Lyonne, game and charming as ever — is rash, messy, and unguarded. The poker face of the series title certainly isn’t hers, nor does it belong to the absolute mugs who make unworthy foes of her in the series premiere. Maybe I’m just being pedantic, or maybe the title is one of the mysteries this ten-parter from Rian Johnson will eventually reveal.
Poker Face is the Knives Out writer-director’s first foray into television, a medium that Lyonne has proved impressively adept at making (Orange Is the New Black, Russian Doll). But one of the treats of the series’ vintage-looking opening credits — rendered in Columbo yellow no less! — is seeing how many past collaborators are along for the ride. “Dead Man’s Hand” features Lyonne’s OITNB co-star Dascha Polanco and Adrien Brody, whom Johnson last directed in The Brothers Bloom. (Benjamin Bratt is here too — a little random but always welcome.) For the pilot, at least, there’s also Bob Ducsay (the award-winning editor of Knives Out and Star Wars: Episode VIII), composer Nathan Johnson (Rian Johnson’s cousin and frequent collaborator), and Steve Yedlin (cinematographer on Johnson hits like Looper, Brick, and Glass Onion). Where Johnson goes, Yedlin apparently follows, even if it means adapting his composition to a smaller screen.
If Peacock has put any Netflix-style constraints on Yedlin, he has found a way to outmaneuver them. Poker Face looks fantastic. It has the depth and texture of a feature film as well as quirks and nuance. An early crash zoom on Bratt’s face made me chirp aloud with laughter — as did a shot of a dashboard tchotchke dancing after a car door slams shut. This isn’t earth-shattering camerawork, of course, which says something about the waning state of prestige TV. Five minutes into episode one of Poker Face, I felt the rare thrill of watching something made with obsessive effort.
The show’s evocative, lo-fi sound quality — the ambient sound is tinny and echoic (like The Conversation) — had me initially thinking that we were in the past. Natalie Hill (Polanco), a dead-tired chambermaid, wheels her supply cart from room to dingy room of the Frost Hotel, a mid-market casino on the hot, flat Arizona border. It becomes clear that we’re in (roughly) the present day only when Nat sees something on the open laptop of Kazimir Caine — a high roller whose repeat custom the Frost relies on — that sends her running into the hallway. We never learn for sure what it is, but it must be really bad, because hotel maids are regularly exposed to pretty gnarly shit.
At first, it’s unclear what the mystery of the week will be in Johnson’s ode to TV detectives, because we see it all go down. We see Nat tell Cliff, the casino-security boss played by Bratt, what she’s seen. We see Sterling Gates Jr., the casino manager played by Brody, delete the photo evidence from Nat’s phone to protect his whale. We even see Cliff race to the home Nat shares with her low-life, abusive husband, Jerry, so that he can kill them both, then pass it off as a murder-suicide.
The holes in their hasty cover-up seemed so obvious to me! There must be cameras all over the casino floor that captured Nat’s heated convo with Cliff. And a colleague definitely noticed Natalie behaving uncharacteristically standoffish as she darted to her car before the end of her shift. And what will Sterling tell his secretary, Ginger, who saw how distraught Nat looked before she left his office? (As it turns out, two of these “holes” will not matter, and I would make a terrible TV detective.) The show’s mystery is not what happened to Nat but the more meta, if less captivating, question: How will Charlie figure out what happened to Nat? Like Columbo, which inspired it, it’s not a whodunit but a howcatchem.
Timelines on this show are cleverly layered, as they are in the Knives Out films, so that details salient to solving the case are revealed nonchronologically but never confusingly. Between Lyonne’s frantic, burnt-orange hair and her voice, which ages like a fine gravel, she can never disappear into any role she plays, but that’s not her gift. Her gift is the history she lends offbeat characters, and the romantically neurotic Charlie is no exception. When she steps foot out of a mobile home so old it’s definitely immobile and rages on Twitter about the Russian origins of kiddie porn, she’s fully formed — just add Coors Light.
Charlie’s a co-worker. She serves drinks in a bustier at the same kitschy casino that Nat cleans. If this seems like too menial a job for someone who can penetrate anyone’s so-called poker face to separate lies from facts, it turns out that she started working there under duress. Back in the day, whatever day that was, a more enterprising version of Charlie went on a tour of midwestern cities winning mid-stakes games in below-the-radar casinos, a streak that ended when she brought her “supernatural infallibility” to the Frost. Her superhero origin story is that Sterling’s dad — the real Mr. Sterling Gates and owner of the Frost — blackballed her at American casinos after noticing her uncanny talent. But he knew to keep his enemies close. Now the most dangerous card player in the Wild West is serving drinks to the same men she should be fleecing.
Why does this matter? Well, this is where our wicked worlds converge. Sterling Jr. has learned that Kazimir Caine has been running a big-money pickup game in the same hotel room the Frost has comped! To teach him some manners and impress his dad, he plans to install Charlie in that game and make off with a few million of Kazimir’s dollars. He comes up with a whole cockamamie scheme, and his henchman Cliff is in on it. They’ll set up cameras in Kaz’s room, and Charlie will use her Spidey-sense to communicate to a shill they’ve planted in the game which players are bluffing and when to bid up. It’s too clever by half. Has anyone considered simply politely asking Kaz to stop running this game and pay for his own room? Anyway, Nat makes her indecent discovery after the plan to take Kaz’s money is hatched but not before it’s executed. This is why she had to lose her life — to protect this nonsense play for poker chips.
The rest of the episode is dedicated to Charlie unraveling what we, the viewers at home, already know. Because Charlie and Nat aren’t just co-workers but besties. After Jerry decked Nat for questioning some dick pics she’d found, she sought refuge at Charlie’s. The town sheriff on Natalie’s case isn’t exactly bumbling, but the fact pattern — abusive husband, two bodies, gun in the house — is too clean for him to bother with any real investigation. But Charlie can smell a lie even if she can’t yet nail it down.
A series like this runs on coincidences. One measure of how satisfying Poker Face turns out to be is how well-earned those coincidences feel. That Charlie’s next-door neighbor happens to be a petty thief who can pick a lock and owes her one such that she can break into her dead friend’s home and find a backup of the photo Sterling deleted from Nat’s phone on some other cloud-connected device? Not that satisfying! Just break a window!
That the code to unlock said cloud-connected device is the same as Nat’s locker code, which Charlie learns when another co-worker gives it to a policeman to save him from taking bolt cutters to a perfectly operational combination lock? We’re getting warmer.
That Charlie remembers that Jerry, on a night he drunkenly stalked his wife at work while armed, holstered his gun on his right ankle, which means he is left-hand-dominant? Uncanny. And that she then combines that memory with an observation from a crime-scene photo she peeped while pestering the town sheriff in which the would-be murder weapon appears in Jerry’s cold right hand? Yes! Now we’re cooking with gas! (Which we should not do, I realize.)
All it takes for Charlie to connect the rest of the dots is literally one strong cup of coffee. She uses security footage to confirm Cliff took Jerry’s gun off of him on the night he stalked Nat into the casino and her human capacity for lie detection to confirm that Jerry never came back to reclaim it, which means Cliff is the only person who could have put it back in the house on the night of the murders. There’s some catting and mousing, to be sure. Charlie interrogates Cliff and Sterling about her suspicions. They threaten her into carrying out the scheme to catch their great white whale despite knowing they killed her friend.
But for most of the episode, this mystery has little danger. And Sterling, the poor little medium-rich kid who yearns for daddy’s love, just isn’t a formidable enemy for someone as sharp as Charlie. After Charlie rejects the cover story about Nat’s death early in the pilot, the most stirring question becomes how she will get her revenge on Sterling Jr. once she inevitably outsmarts him. Well, it turns out she’s no saint either. Even after seeing the incriminating photo of whatever Nat saw on Kaz’s computer, she makes a deal with the devil she doesn’t know. She warns him of the fix on his upcoming private game, thereby destroying Frost Casino’s reputation for good. As the show tells us more than once, gamblers talk.
Sterling can’t withstand the blow. Rather than confront his father’s disapproval, he takes the lethal shortcut from the balcony of his penthouse office to the sidewalk just below it. Stunned, Charlie runs out of the office but not fast enough to escape Cliff’s gun. She’s wounded, though not so gravely that she can’t flee the hotel before the cops arrive — the same cops Sterling Jr. spoke so shamelessly about having in his pocket. To reassure us that Charlie’s morality isn’t unforgivably flexible, she emails the photo of Kaz’s computer to the people she thinks will give a damn: the town sheriff, the FBI, the CIA, Oprah.
All in all, the episode is a fun little low-stakes romp — low-stakes because Sterling is such a smarmy buffoon that he can’t muster anything approaching actual menace. The menace instead arrives after the case is closed in the form of a phone call from the real Mr. Sterling Gates, a bereaved father who promises to hunt Charlie to the ends of the earth in revenge. My guess is that he won’t have to travel nearly so far. Charlie destroys her phone on the spot and hops in her beater, but by the looks of it, that car won’t carry her very far — just far enough to the next town, the next case, the next adventure.