Natasha Lyonne shows off her 'Poker Face' in a clever series inspired by 'Columbo'
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Rian Johnson, the writer-director who went from the blockbuster "The Last Jedi" to the Agatha Christie-style mystery comedies "Knives Out" and "Glass Onion" has created his first TV series. Called "Poker Face," it stars Natasha Lyonne from "Russian Doll" and "Orange Is The New Black." It premieres Thursday on Peacock. And our TV critic David Bianculli loves it. Here's his review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: If you've seen the "Knives Out" movies - and if you haven't, you should - you have a good idea what to expect from "Poker Face," the first TV series from "Knives Out" writer-director Rian Johnson. He concocts solid, intricate mysteries, populates them with oddball, entertaining characters, and casts his comedy mysteries with wonderful, often surprising choices. But you have an even better idea what to expect from "Poker Face" if you're a fan of classic TV, especially the iconic 1970s Peter Falk series "Columbo."
In "Colombo," Peter Falk played a rumpled, mumbling detective who invariably went up against society's one-percenters - the wealthy, the privileged, the powerful. And by noticing the tiniest details and asking the most seemingly insignificant questions, he irritated his murder suspects until he eventually brilliantly solved the case. And "Columbo" wasn't a whodunit. The first act of each episode showed the killer committing the crime. Peter Falk's Columbo didn't even show up until about 10 minutes in, and the fun was in watching him investigate and exasperate, eventually uncovering what we viewers already knew.
It's one thing to admire what "Columbo" the TV series did. It's quite another to pull off a modern version of it. But that's exactly what "Poker Face" does. Johnson does it in part by making some significant, very smart changes. The murderers and the murdered aren't just the elite. Sometimes, in "Poker Face," they're gas station attendants or barbecue pitmasters. And the central character, Charlie Cale, isn't a man and isn't a detective. She's a cocktail waitress in Las Vegas who has an odd psychic power. She's sort of a human lie detector and can sense when people aren't telling the truth.
In the opening episode, her casino boss, played by Adrien Brody, hears of her abilities and runs a test. He calls her to his office, picks up a deck of cards, and flips through them, telling her which cards he's supposedly holding. Sometimes he's lying; sometimes he's not. But she nails it every time.
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ADRIEN BRODY: (As Sterling Frost Jr.) You're not reading the cards.
NATASHA LYONNE: (As Charlie Cale) How could I read the cards?
BRODY: (As Sterling Frost Jr.) You're reading me. It's not like it's one thing like my eye twitches or something.
LYONNE: (As Charlie Cale) Nah.
BRODY: (As Sterling Frost Jr.) It's just a general...
LYONNE: (As Charlie Cale) Yeah.
BRODY: (As Sterling Frost Jr.) You can just tell.
LYONNE: (As Charlie Cale) Just that something is off. That's the best way to describe it. I could just tell.
BRODY: (As Sterling Frost Jr.) When anyone is lying. 100% of the time. I'm going to touch my nose.
LYONNE: (As Charlie Cale, laughing) Nah, it doesn't work like that. I'm not a soothsayer. I can't predict the future. There's nothing mystical about it - just if someone is intentionally lying. That's it. You're not firing me.
BRODY: (As Sterling Frost Jr.) Charlie. Charlie. How can you not see that this is a gift? You've been graced with a gift.
BIANCULLI: The casino operator has a scheme to use Charlie and her gift. But things go sideways, and Charlie ends up leaving the city with a casino enforcer, played by Benjamin Bratt, hot on her trail. And from then on, "Poker Face" turns into a modern-day version of several classic TV series. It's part "The Fugitive," part "Route 66," and lots and lots of "Columbo."
Peacock, very smartly, is launching this streaming series by showing the first four episodes on opening day. From the second episode on, Charlie visits different cities, including a stop along Route 66, and somehow gets involved in a murder at each place. Sometimes she's met the future victim, sometimes the killer, sometimes a witness. But she senses something is off and sets out to seek justice even though she's on the run herself and has to avoid publicity. Natasha Lyonne is a total delight as the central character. Just as with Peter Falk, she has such quirky energy and charm, she shifts things to a higher gear just by showing up on-screen.
And also, as in "Columbo," the guest stars more than pull their own weight. Adrien Brody in the opener is terrific, playing a smarmy villain. And in later episodes, Judith Light steals the show as a former political radical. And Ellen Barkin and Tim Meadows chew the scenery in a good way as has-been TV actors reuniting for a dinner theater production. Everyone who guest stars shows up to play often against type.
In one episode, Lyonne's Charlie suspects a has-been punk rock star, played by Chloe Sevigny, of foul play in the death of Gavin, a new band member. Charlie tries to use her lie detector powers to ask about the murder victim. But at first, those get her only so far.
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LYONNE: (As Charlie Cale) Look me in the eyes, and tell me that Gavin didn't write that song.
CHLOE SEVIGNY: (As Ruby Ruin) Gavin wrote that song.
LYONNE: (As Charlie Cale) Oh. Well, that's true, but also not cool. He deserves credit.
SEVIGNY: (As Ruby Ruin) OK, and what do we deserve? That song isn't going to bring Gavin back, but it'll change our lives. We recorded the song. We're playing it tonight. Look, Charlie, I'm just trying to make something good out of something bad.
BIANCULLI: I've seen the first six episodes of "Poker Face." Everyone is so clever, the twists so inspired, and the performances so good, I was satisfied by them all. And though Charlie is on the run throughout, most of "Poker Face" plays as a series of self-contained stories just as "Columbo" did. Natasha Lyonne, like Peter Falk, may not show up until partway through each episode. But like her new series, she's unquestionably worth the wait. It's a great performance and, from the start, a great show.
DAVIES: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University. He reviewed the new series "Poker Face."
On tomorrow's show, what the January 6 committee investigators learned about the role of social media in the assault on the Capitol that never made it into the committee's final report. We'll speak with Washington Post reporter Drew Harwell, part of a team that reported on a draft memo which details how the tech platforms failed to curb extremist content. I hope you can join us.
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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "ARMANDO'S RHUMBA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.