Poker Face Series Premiere Review: A Brilliant Callback To Seventies Mysteries, Bursting With Talent

In the first couple of episodes of Poker Face, Natasha Lyonne and Rian Johnson deliver a smart and delightful set of character-driven mysteries.

By Michileen Martin | Updated

poker face series premiere

With the Poker Face series premiere arriving so soon after the streaming debut of Glass Onion: A Knives Out Story, and the series being created by the Knives Out brainchild himself Rian Johnson, you might naturally assume Natasha Lyonne’s new show is essentially Knives Out: The Series. You’d be wrong and thank Blanc for that. Instead Poker Face follows a formula more reminiscent of the mystery-of-the-week TV series like Columbo, with Lyonne as a brilliant burnout hanging on to life by a thread while nevertheless sleuthing out the real bad guys in her travels.

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Beyond some casting choices — most obviously Noah Segan who plays a sheriff in the Poker Face series premiere, and who has had a part in every Rian Johnson directed feature film — if there’s any real connection between the Poker Face series premiere and Rian Johnson’s more famous big screen whodunnits, it would be the conceptual bond between Lyonne’s Charlie and Ana de Armas‘ Marta. Charlie is kind of an inverted Marta in one crucial way: Marta was so physically incapable of lying that doing so would literally cause her to vomit, while Charlie has the innate ability to tell whenever anyone is lying to her.

It’s this ability to be a human lie detector that not only makes Charlie a great detective, but helps set up the premise of the Poker Face series premiere. Charlie, we learn, used her ability to win piles of money from card tables; something that got her in trouble with the casino-owning mob boss Sterling Frost (Ron Perlman). That same boss forced her into servitude as a cocktail waitress at his casino, and his son Sterling Frost, Jr. (Adrien Brody) decides to recruit her to turn the cables on a dishonest card shark.

Charlie isn’t too squeaky clean to work with Sterling Jr., but when her friend Natalie (Dascha Polanco) winds up murdered, Charlie’s priorities shift and things get ugly between her and the mob. It’s the aftermath of the Poker Face series premiere that finds its hero on the road, with more mysteries waiting for her along the way.

poker face series premiere
Dascha Polanco and Natasha Lyonne in the Poker Face series premiere

A lot of comparisons have been drawn between Lyonne’s brilliant performance and that of the late Peter Falk as Columbo. The series is more than conscious of its influences, and plenty of nods are made toward the past, but one very big and very welcome difference is borne out of the so-called second Golden Age of television. Poker Face is arguably more about the characters than the mystery, and Johnson & Co. have recruited the perfect talent for the series.

Not only is Natasha Lyonne’s Charlie no Benoit Blanc, not only is the show itself no Knives Out, but in a sense it’s relatively short on mystery. Each episode opens with the murder unfolding in front of us with both the killers and the motivations laid bare. The only true mystery left to us after the opening scenes is the question of how Charlie will figure out what we already know and make sure the responsible parties pay for what they’ve done.

Lyonne is joined in the Poker Face series premiere and the subsequent episodes by a wonderful cast, including Benjamin Bratt (Miss Congeniality) as a ruthless button man, and Hong Chau (The Whale) as a hilarious trucker wrongly accused of murder in the second episode.

Ironically, the amazing cast of Poker Face could prove to be its proverbial Achilles’ Heel. With both the “who” and the “why” of each murder unveiled in the first 5 minutes of each episode, Poker Face lives and dies by its cast. For example, when we learn right away that Colton Ryan’s (Uncle Frank) Jed is the guilty part of Episode 2, “The Night Shift,” we need a captivating performance by Ryan in order to keep us watching and that’s what we get.

If Poker Face is to survive far past its series premiere and get renewed for a second season, there’s no room for filler episodes, and no patience for actors who aren’t up to their parts. And with Charlie presumably in a different locale every episode, the series will need a brand new spectacular cast for every single chapter.

So far, Poker Face is delivering in spades. You can judge for yourself with the first 4 episodes currently streaming on Peacock.