“Everyone, they lie constantly. It’s like birds chirping.” In Peacock’s new series “Poker Face,” Natasha Lyonne stars as Charlie Cale, an accidental detective who can’t help but ask questions, thanks to her inexplicable, preternatural talents as a human lie detector. Creator Rian Johnson, the mind behind “Knives Out” and “Glass Onion,” subverts mystery tropes left and right for a refreshing take on the genre that toys with audience expectations.
Charlie embarks on a road trip through working-class America in her 1969 Plymouth Barracuda, working odd jobs and trying to lay low. Unlike Johnson’s famous private investigator Benoit Blanc, who chases criminals with dapper determination, Charlie is a blue-collar woman on the run — though trouble seems to follow her, like the feisty stray dog in episode three that jumps into her car and refuses to leave her side (much to Charlie’s chagrin).
It’s not a whodunnit, but rather a “howcatchem” — a type of inverted detective story popularized by the 1970s crime drama “Columbo,” harkening back to a time when case-of-the-week mysteries were primetime television. Each opening sequence establishes the crime and the culprit, leaving viewers to wonder about the motive, the modus operandi and exactly how Charlie will manage to unravel the mystery this time.
This unorthodox structure where the audience knows more than the protagonist leads to unexpected moments of comedic suspense, as Charlie often puts herself in danger by revealing her discoveries to precisely the wrong person. She teases out evidence through carefully worded questions designed to catch them in a lie, though those who know her secret cleverly twist their words into riddles to avoid being caught.
Unlike Columbo, however, Charlie doesn’t work with the police — in fact, she’s hiding from the law while angry casino tycoon Sterling Frost Sr.’s (Ron Perlman) goons chase her across the country. Class conflict subtly weaves through each storyline, as many of the perpetrators are affluent pricks who take advantage of anyone who gets in their way. As a result, Charlie doesn’t always seek justice using the legal system. “You keep thinking I’m trying to convict you,” she says in the pilot. “I’m not a cop.” Instead, she gets inside people’s heads and hits them where it hurts: their pockets, or their reputation.
Lyonne’s character is a type usually reserved for middle-aged men in the peak of their careers: shrewd yet lackadaisical, with a tendency to piss people off and a certain disheveled swagger that’s impossible to emulate. When we meet Charlie, she’s a chain-smoking, beer-swigging cocktail waitress, but she dons many masks — a merch girl for a struggling band, a retirement home nurse, an assistant to a special effects artist — as she travels everywhere from rural Texas to upstate New York.
But if Lyonne forms the steady heartbeat of the show, the impressive lineup of guest stars are the tentacles that keep pulling viewers back for more, like a glassy-eyed gambler on a slot machine. Adrien Brody plays a sleazy casino manager, Chloë Sevigny an aging heavy metal singer, Hong Chau a laconic long haul trucker and Stephanie Hsu a quirky kleptomaniac.
It’s not until the finale, however, that the audience catches a glimpse into Charlie’s backstory, when she finds herself back in her hometown of Atlantic City, forced to turn to her estranged sister Emily (Clea Duvall) and niece for help. “I bet there are a lot of people out there who need someone like you,” Emily admits, explaining that a relationship between the two of them is impossible, given Charlie’s unconventional lifestyle. “But us? We’re doing just fine.”
On Feb. 15, Peacock announced that “Poker Face” will return for a second season, so Charlie’s life on the road isn’t over just yet. She’ll keep spending her goodwill on strangers, stumbling into trouble and whispering “bulls—t” under her breath wherever she goes.