“Poker Face” is a bit of old-school TV crime-solving, courtesy of creator Rian Johnson of the “Knives Out” franchise. Each episode revolves around a case-of-the-week murder, and each one is cast with amusing guest stars such as Chloe Sevigny (as a hard-rock singer), Ellen Barkin (as a campy fading actress), and S. Epatha Merkerson (as a one-time radical).
It’s something like a contemporary “Murder She Wrote,” but Natasha Lyonne’s Charlie Cale is not a writer so much as an astute reader — of people’s faces. A casino worker who hits the road when things go south with her shady boss (Adrien Brody), she travels the country bumping into homicides and using her gift to find the killer. Basically she’s a human lie detector, with an almost supernatural ability to know whether someone is telling the truth or not (thus her presence in the world of gambling).
The show, which premieres on Peacock on Thursday, also has a strong “Columbo” vibe, and that’s largely because it is all held together — and beautifully so — by the Columbo-esque Lyonne, she of the raspy, rusty New Yorker voice and the low-key Borscht Belt shtick. As Charlie, Lyonne is a lot of wry fun, as you might expect, with her hemming and hawing to herself and her shambling ways. Charlie does not suffer fools or BS easily, and she has a way of getting perps to tell her too much for their own good.
Charlie cruises along in her 1969 Plymouth Barracuda, landing wherever, finding herself wrapped up in something colorfully dastardly. And then, before we know it, she’s back on the road, still trying to evade the casino goon (Benjamin Bratt) sent to find her. There is a serialized element to “Poker Face,” regarding the past Charlie is fleeing, which is sketched out in the premiere; but it’s secondary to the splashy murder cases, at least in the five episodes made available for review.
I like the way “Poker Face” operates, in that we know from the start whodunit because the episodes open with the murders. The emphasis is therefore on the characters-of-the-week — they will also be played by Cherry Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Judith Light, Lil Rel Howery, Nick Nolte, Rhea Perlman, and Tim Meadows — as well as on Charlie, who generally shows up midway through the story line. We watch her try to figure it all out, sniffing out lies and asking trick questions, unwilling to ignore her sharp instincts. She isn’t a detective, so her suspects often have their guard down; but then since she isn’t a detective, she has to somehow send the guilty party into the arms of justice before she moves on.
“Poker Face” is an entertaining throwback to a time when murder cases on TV weren’t quite as bloodily realistic and morally challenging. Like so many other crime shows right now, it isn’t asking you to explore your own sense of right and wrong. Instead, it’s offering you a mild diversion, in the playful manner of “Knives Out,” and an hourlong hang with Natasha Lyonne.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.