Poker Face: Natasha Lyonne’s perfect detective show turns up the fun-o-meter until it explodes
A PI who can spot liars a mile away, and a cast clearly having a hoot, inject the classic murder-of-the-week format with wit, charm and irresistible energy
Whatever happened to fun? We used to have it, didn’t we? Mr Blobby bursting through things, stuff like that. But in recent years, it feels, fun has receded a bit, and we’ve replaced it with other things that don’t hit as hard: overearnestness or mawkishness or choreographed sentimentality. Someone really trembling while they deliver a series-closing monologue about their emotions. You couldn’t have Del Boy falling through a bar these days, could you? That’s because we’re in a fun drought, the dust of it whirling round us like old glitter.
Thank goodness then for Poker Face, the enormously successful mystery-a-week show that debuted in the US earlier this year and has finally come over to Sky Max (from Friday), and which remembers throughout what fun is. First there is the casting of Natasha Lyonne, who is always fun – her own vibrating beacon of freestanding fun, even – but is especially fun when she just plays the character of Natasha Lyonne, which is exactly what she is doing here. Then there’s that little tweak to the “unlikely detective” trope – Lyonne’s Charlie Cale has the innate ability to sense when someone’s telling a lie (her catchphrase is just “bullshit”, which is – you guessed it) – and uses it to unpuzzle strange murders and bizarre crimes on a run-from-the-mob-boss road trip across the US.
Even the decision to place each episode in a series of unlikely, salty, rust belt backwaters – at a Nascar track, or an out-of-town petrol station – is fun. It feels as if they had fun behind the scenes making them up, and it makes the whole thing feel more lively and interesting throughout. It’s also nice to be reminded places other than “Manhattan” or “LA” exist, as almost every TV show produced in America tends to forget.
Each hour-long episode gives 12 to 17 minutes of Lyonne-less backstory over to the guest stars that week – from Chloë Sevigny to Adrien Brody to Tim Blake Nelson to Jameela Jamil, all of whom are having enormous amounts of the f-word – and every episode wrings every last drop out of its runtime, each one feeling rich and textured. There’s some ongoing storyline where Charlie’s history will catch up with her, probably. There’s a couple of running in-jokes and some premonition stuff that I think will come to a resolution towards the end. But, for now, here Natasha Lyonne is, mopping out a urinal and 25 minutes away from solving a crime. And it is so, so fun.
Poker Face is a Rian Johnson creation, and I’m glad he’s back on form – Brick and Looper were so good, then The Last Jedi was really long and then for better or worse Knives Out happened and Glass Onion after that – because Poker Face feels like all the good bits from his previous works (knotty puzzles solved in unlikely ways and along unlikely timelines by unlikely investigators; dialogue that’s actually smart, not look-to-the-camera-and-check-you-noticed-how-smart-it-was smart; a constant but never-looming threat) and none of the bad bits (Luke Skywalker taking about 15 hours to die; a big onion made of glass).
The series has already been compared to the heyday of Columbo – there is admittedly something very “ … just one more thing” about Lyonne’s performance – and that’s not necessarily because of the mystery-a-week format. It’s more the dense character study-ness of it, the fact that each guest star has a part to get their teeth stuck into rather than just being a bland eyewitness, and then Natasha Lyonne as a charisma whirlwind in the middle of it. The show finds new ways to reveal or not reveal Charlie’s strange superpower; fun new twists on lying and telling the truth; grey-area moral quandaries of every flavour; exploring those dark instincts we all have (jealousy, greed, hubris) and throwing a few slightly overdone murders in there and turning up the fun-o-meter until it explodes. Not every episode ends in a neat resolution, or a cop waiting there with a pair of handcuffs and a sullen expression. Every single decision they made about this one they got right.
Hey, come on. Been a bad year, hasn’t it? You sat through all those episodes of The White Lotus. They’re taking Succession away from you and made Cousin Greg the worst one along the way. Love Island wasn’t even good this time. Don’t you think you deserve this? There’s no fun to be had out there, in the real world. Believe me. Turn the TV on. It’s a long time since you had fun and you’ve forgotten how good it is. Come on. Trust me. Watch Poker Face. Have just a little bit of fun.