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  • Writer's picturePaul Gainey

Poker Face

"Poker Face" is a modern homage to the classic murder-mystery-of-the-week shows which filled those parts of 1970s and 80s television schedules that hadn’t been colonised by soaps about oil tycoons and shoulder-pads.

It’s created by Knives Out director Rian Johnson and the gravel-throated Natasha Lyonne, of Orange Is the New Black and Russian Doll fame, stars as the infallible sleuth Charlie, who remains unfazed by the number and regularity of the killings that happen around her. Think of it as Murder, She Rasped.

The main change to the traditional format is that our heroine has an almost preternatural ability to read a person’s body language and deduce whether they are lying or telling the truth.

On second thoughts, perhaps you should think of it as Columbo meets The Mentalist, if anyone remembers The Mentalist these days.

Anyway, Charlie’s gift is just strong enough to pique her curiosity in any given scenario and help her along the way to solving crimes, but not strong enough for her to do so until at least 45 minutes and sometimes as many as 52 have elapsed and given the weekly guest star reason enough to turn up.

In the opening episode we have Adrien Brody as weaselly Vegas casino manager Sterling, who was given the job by his powerful gangster father and is eager to prove to Daddy he’s got the cojones for it; plus Benjamin Bratt as Cliff, the man who does any necessary wet work for the family firm.

When Charlie’s best friend and hotel maid Natalie goes to clean a high roller’s room and sees evidence of a heinous (nicely unspecified) crime on his laptop, she quickwittedly snaps a photo of it and leaves.

Less quickwittedly, she takes the photo to Sterling and Cliff, who kill her and her husband – usefully known to be violent towards her – and frame him for her murder rather than threaten the casino’s reputation and profits.

Soon Charlie is noting lies, inconsistencies, timelines that don’t match up and concluding – thanks to a left-handed/right-handed shooter clue that is almost courageously basic – that her boss murdered Natalie.

She promptly ruins the hotel’s reputation and profits, causing Sterling Sr to promise he will catch and kill her.

Each of the nine follows the same format. The crime is committed in the opening portion. The next portion reveals how Charlie earlier became involved in the victim’s life, and the finale, of course, solves the crime and delivers (occasionally unconventional) justice.

Sometimes it delivers it in the pleasingly retro manner of an aerial shot of a slew of police sirens converging on a resigned perpetrator’s home. It also lets Charlie leave town just ahead of her remorseless hunter.

But all the episodes are fun, and working a lighter and more clearly comic scene than Columbo et al.

Lyonne is as mesmerising as ever, perhaps all the more so for not being quite as effortfully and obviously turned up to the max as she was at all times in Russian Doll. Charlie lets the audience in, which makes it somehow more feasible that all the people she meets as she bounces around the country connect with her and make it hard, when they are killed or falsely accused, for her to walk away.

A good time – especially if you take it in single doses so your credulity doesn’t risk being overstretched – is there to be had.

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