'Poker Face' is a perfect blend of slow burn drama and old school 'Columbo' goofiness

Bill Goodykoontz
Arizona Republic
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Rian Johnson has cracked the code with “Poker Face.”

It’s a blast.

For a long time, TV, particularly cop dramas, ran off a particular model: the procedural, standalone episodes that began with a crime that the intrepid detective solved by the end credits. If you missed last week’s episode it didn’t really matter; in terms of an ongoing story, you hadn’t actually missed anything.

That evolved over time into a different way of telling stories, season-long (or longer) arcs that played, to dredge up that tired trope, like hours-long movies. Mostly cable dramas, like “The Sopranos” or “The Wire,” but also in broadcast-network shows like “24” and “Lost.”

Dramatically the long-form shows were more satisfying, but they could also lack the sense of goofball fun a show like “Columbo” thrived on.

Specifically a show like “Columbo.” That’s clearly a model for Johnson — the "Poker Face" creator and director of the “Knives Out” films and “Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi,” among others — and the show's star and fellow executive producer Natasha Lyonne.

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When is the premiere date for 'Poker Face?'

The show, streaming on Peacock on Jan. 26, marries the storytelling quality of the long-arc model with the loose-limbed fun of shows from the 1970s. Lyonne is perfect, bumbling and stumbling like Peter Falk in his trench coat (right down to the cigarettes) until the inevitable “just one more thing” question that nails the culprit.

Seriously, she is fantastic, and the stacked roster of talented guest stars has a ball playing opposite her.

But “Poker Face” is not a remake or a reboot. A reimagining might even be a stretch. Lyonne plays Charlie Cale, who when we meet her is a cocktail waitress in a casino in what appears to be Laughlin, Nevada (she drives to Bullhead City, Arizona at one point, which is across the Colorado river from Laughlin).

Natasha Lyonne as Charlie Cale in "Poker Face" on Peacock.

Charlie has a gift which, as often seems to be the case, might also be a curse: She can tell when people are lying. She can’t always tell the exact lie, only that there is one. It’s a handy talent in a casino, until the house is onto you.

In the first episode, Charlie winds up in an illegal partnership with a casino boss played with evil glee by Adrien Brody. As with all of the episodes, it’s not a matter of whether Charlie will outsmart the villain. It’s more a matter of how, and how much we’ll enjoy watching the story unfold.

Brody’s father, on the other hand, is a problem Charlie can’t shake, which sends her on the run, so each episode takes place in a different location. His enforcer, played by Benjamin Bratt, is in hot, if often ineffective, pursuit. Along the way guest stars like Lil Rel Howery, Chloë Sevigny, Judith Light and Ellen Barkin, to name a few, absolutely delight in playing various versions of villains. 

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Natasha Lyonne is great, as she was in 'Russian Doll'

The stories, in fact, belong to them for large opening chunks of each episode. Charlie, picking up jobs in each town she stops in typically shows up later, although the point of view changes along the way, giving us a new perspective on her part in the action. Seemingly at some point in every episode she tries to escape whatever mess she realizes she’s about to become embroiled in, but sticks around anyway. It’s a cool device, and effective.

It’s the perfect role for Lyonne, who gets to play smart, tough and a little weird. Her disarming smile — not unlike Columbo’s — is less a comfort than a signal that she’s onto you. (Her last series, “Russian Doll,” seemed like the perfect series for her, too. Maybe she’s the constant.)

I don’t want to overstate things. Johnson hasn’t reinvented the TV wheel. But he’s merged two types of TV sensibilities into something that feels comfortable and new at the same time. “Poker Face” is a joy. Don’t miss it.

'Poker Face'

Streaming on Peacock. First four episodes are available Jan. 26, followed by new episodes each Thursday.

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Reach Goodykoontz at [email protected]. Facebook: Twitter: @goodyk.

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