There are many reasons to enjoy a good TV procedural, but one of the biggest pleasures comes from watching marquee actors take on the roles of suspects, victims, and whomever else is connected to the dead body of the week. On that level, Peacock’s Poker Face does not disappoint, since Rian Johnson’s Natasha Lyonne–starring series pretty much exists to give Lyonne an excuse to hang out with a bevy of Hollywood’s finest scene-stealers. Over the course of its ten-episode season, her lie-detecting Charlie wanders across America, inexorably drawn into solving various murders involving Emmy winners, Oscar winners, and Drama Desk nominees.
But of the many standout guest performances of the season, who stood out best? The criteria for our ranking required each actor be first-billed among the guest stars of the episode in question (at times, two actors share a billing, so they qualify together), which eliminates a number of secondary appearances from other great actors in more minor roles. Shout-out to Dascha Polanco in the pilot, Jameela Jamil in “Exit Stage Death,” Charles Melton in “The Future of the Sport,” and, of course, Stephanie Hsu in “Escape From Shit Mountain.” (She has an Oscar nomination and a Drama Desk nomination, she’ll be fine!) Also, we’re not counting anyone who appears in multiple episodes, because that’s the supporting cast. Sorry to Simon Helberg and, of course, the excellent Benjamin Bratt.
Adrien Brody as Sterling Frost Jr. in episode one, “Dead Man’s Hand”
Are you ready for the Brodyssance? Too late, it’s already well upon us. Brody, who starred in Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom, plays the newly appointed head of his dad’s casino and kicks off the whole series by ordering the killing of Charlie’s friend Nat (Polanco) and very ineptly trying to cover it up by pinning it on her abusive husband. He then tries to use Charlie to scam a high roller running his own game within the casino, but that leads Charlie to figuring out Junior’s whole scheme and ratting him out to said high roller, ruining the casino’s reputation in the process because gamblers talk. Senior gives his son a very stern call, which prompts Junior to jump off a balcony, thus inciting Senior to call for Charlie’s demise. Brody does a great job playing a slimy failson who thinks he’s smarter than he is, but that’s a lot of plot for one role to carry, so he doesn’t get to have as much fun as some of the other guests on the list. Solid work setting a menacing tone for the villains to come, though.
Lil Rel Howery as Taffy Boyle in episode three, “The Stall”
Poor Taffy just doesn’t have a way with barbecue, especially compared to his brother George (Larry Brown), who can work magic with meat but has a crisis of faith after Charlie lends him some DVDs including Okja (one of Poker Face’s niftier background pop-culture jokes). Taffy, however, is a businessman, so he offs George, tries to frame it as a suicide, then insists they keep their restaurant going in his honor. This all falls apart rather quickly once Charlie starts asking Taffy and his co-conspirator, George’s wife Mandy (Danielle Macdonald), questions. It’s not one of Poker Face’s better episodes, but Lil Rel has fun with his Texas wheeling-and-dealing persona. He’s got a big hat, big boots, a bolo tie, and also a bit of melancholy to him, like he’s done this terrible evil thing to his brother in the name of barbecue and he’s just a li’l sad about it.
Tim Blake Nelson as Keith Owens in episode seven, “The Future of the Sport”
Ah, the soothing rumble of Tim Blake Nelson’s drawl tickling your ear. Nelson comes on as a gruff older race-car driver who seems like he might be the villain of the episode — only for the hotheaded younger Davis McDowell (Charles Melton) to prove himself even worse. When Keith tries to sabotage Davis’s car, Davis goes even further and lends the vehicle to Keith’s daughter, Katie, an aspiring racer in her own right. After Katie crashes but thankfully does not die, Charlie comes in to figure it all out. Nelson is very good in his typical niche, but the episode doesn’t ask him to do a ton outside of that (Melton shares a lot of the space), and it’s also, unfortunately, one of the less compelling of the season. By episode seven, we’ve become so attuned to Poker Face’s rhythm of introducing a potentially appealing character before the reversal kicks in that the realization that Keith is kinda honorable and Davis is pretty terrible doesn’t hit as hard. Still, you love to hear Nelson mumble.
Ron Perlman as Sterling Frost Sr. in episode ten, “The Hook”
The Poker Face season finale gives its big guest-billing spot to the sinister Ron Perlman, who, after his voice cameo in the first episode, reappears to threaten Charlie after his henchman Cliff tracks her down at the end of episode nine. Given that Sterling Sr. figures out a way to keep twisting the screws into Charlie, it seems like he’ll probably reappear in the second season, but then Cliff offs him and frames Charlie for the deed. (I should also shout out the other big guest, Clea DuVall as Charlie’s sister — a But I’m a Cheerleader reunion! — who I hope really does reappear next season.) The thing about Perlman is he’s so good, so gruff, so scary, just chowing down on every sinister remark that, despite how evil his greedy casino magnate is, we’re sad to see him go. At least he’s replaced as the big bad by another Perlman, Rhea, playing Beatrix Hasp, head of the Five Families syndicate who gives Charlie a call with a threat not unlike the one the other Perlman promised at the start of this season. Plus ça Perlman change, baby!
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Trey Mendez in episode nine, “Escape From Shit Mountain”
Nearly every Rian Johnson project comes with an appearance from JGL, and so too must Poker Face. This time, Johnson’s muse plays a white-collar criminal who’s stuck in his tech-filled mountain home, tethered to an ankle monitor and giving food-delivery people terrible reviews. Trey’s got a dark past; he killed his young friend Chloe years ago and implicated his friend Jimmy (David Castañeda) in the act to get his help hiding the body. He’s ready to kill again once Charlie and Morty (a thieving ski bum played by Stephanie Hsu) cross his path — Charlie literally because he hits her with his car. Gordon-Levitt’s a good villain, working in the vein of his performance in Super Pumped, and he has the advantage of appearing in one of the most tightly constructed episodes of the season. Turns out his new niche is anyone willing to commit insider trading or worse.
Nick Nolte as Arthur Liptin AND Cherry Jones as Laura in episode eight, “The Orpheus Syndrome”
Now we get to the very fun stuff. Nolte and Jones play former VFX collaborators turned rivals who were both involved in the drowning death of an actress on the set of a sci-fi film. Arthur was directing and thinks himself responsible, while his associate Laura, who’s gone on to become a Hollywood power producer, actually sabotaged the starlet. When Laura’s husband, Max (Tim Russ), discovers footage that implicates Laura, she kills him. The whole episode feels like an excuse for Lyonne, who also directed it, to rasp in a scene across from Nolte and face off with the indefatigable Jones, which is to say these actors are playing to type with gleeful abandon. How thrilling!
Chloë Sevigny as Ruby Ruin in episode four, “Rest in Metal”
Speaking of typecasting, here’s cool girl Chloë Sevigny as a coolish rocker who’s grown to hate the only single (also not written by her) that’s been a hit for her band. Sevigny previously played Lyonne’s mom on Russian Doll, and there’s something just right about the two getting to shoot the shit together onscreen. This episode’s mystery isn’t too complex: Ruby gets jealous, again, when new guy Gavin (Nicholas Cirillo) writes a song that might become another hit, and persuades her bandmates to electrocute him onstage so they’ll get the rights to it. Too bad the song was plagiarized from the Benson theme! Charlie and Ruby’s chemistry triggers a real sense of reluctance and disappointment in Charlie once she realizes how they pulled off the murder. It’s always a bummer when it turns out a cool girl isn’t that cool after all.
Judith Light as Irene Smothers AND S. Epatha Merkerson as Joyce Harris in episode five, “Time of the Monkey”
Light and Merkerson make for a purely delightful pair of nursing-home schemers who turn out to be hard-core radicals. They plot to murder newcomer Ben, previously known as Gabe (played by the always good Reed Birney), a former comrade they realize turned in their extremist group to the cops back in the day. After befriending Irene and Joyce, Charlie slowly figures out they were behind the plot with the help of Simon Helberg’s bumbling FBI agent. It’s a bit of a bummer that Charlie ends up taking the side of the Feds and that Irene and Joyce are actually quite dangerous, idiotic radicals (they wanted to blow up a Model U.N., which yes, would mean killing kids). Maybe I was so charmed by Light and Merkerson playing chaotic evil — the way they put on sinister smiles as they switch out heart-rate monitors is very cartoon-Disney-villain from the era when Disney villains were actually scary — that I was lured to their side.
Tim Meadows as Michael Graves AND Ellen Barkin as Kathleen Townsend in episode six, “Exit Stage Death”
I’m a sucker for anything involving dinner theater. Meadows and Barkin play former TV co-stars and current lovers pretending to be at odds while secretly scheming to off Meadows’s new wife (Jameela Jamil) by making her fall through their reunion production’s trick trapdoor. Poker Face sets the action around a performance of a Tennessee Williams–esque play called Ghosts of Pensacola, which means there’s lots of backstage action in which Meadows and Barkin gleefully overact while doing ridiculous stage-y accents. He’s wearing a military uniform, she’s playing a grande dame; both are yelling about times gone by. Their supporting actress Rebecca (Audrey Corsa) catches onto their plot and tries to blackmail them, and soon after that, Charlie figures it all out, too. The episode ends with Barkin giving her all with one glorious Southern Gothic monologue before stepping through that trapdoor herself. Both actors are having so much fun, and Barkin really kills it (sorry) with that ending monologue. I would go see Ghosts of Pensacola. I mean, especially if they also served dinner.
Hong Chau as Marge in episode two, “The Night Shift”
A TV procedural really should be the place where an actor as capable as Hong Chau can let loose with an accent, a fake mole, and a big hat. Marge is a drifting truck driver who befriends Charlie on the road, offers up good advice about staying incognito, and says things like “I’m getting ‘not gonna hook up’ vibes” once she realizes this is more of a friends-not-benefits situation. Marge gets implicated in a murder when mechanic Jed (Colton Ryan) kills local lottery obsessive Damian (Brandon Micheal Hall) for a winning ticket, so Charlie of course has to come to her rescue. The whole plot is secondary to the fact that Hong Chau is just so good at creating a character who’s a kook and also immediately, viscerally real. She got an Oscar nomination for The Whale (terrible movie, though she’s good in it) and probably deserved it instead for The Menu, but what she’s doing on Poker Face is so delightfully, strangely specific it deserves its own award. Even after a few scenes, you can imagine the rest of Marge’s life wandering across the roads of America, probably burping.
More From This Series
- Why Does Poker Face Look So Good?
- Benjamin Bratt Asked to Keep the Penis Ring From the Poker Face Finale
- Poker Face Toes the Thin Blue Line