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  • Writer's picturePaul Gainey

Poker Face

Thank goodness 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.

A private investigator 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. This show turns up the fun-o-meter until it explodes

And 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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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