With her iconic flaming orange hair and unmistakable raspy, New York accent, “Russian Doll” star Natasha Lyonne plays Charlie Cale in the 10-episode whodunnit mystery series “Poker Face” released on Jan. 26 as a crime-solving human lie detector on the run.
The crime-an-episode series airs each Thursday, depicting Charlie as a has-been poker-fanatic-turned-cocktail-waitress, blacklisted after being accused of playing dirty. The initial episode sets the scene for the rest of the series to come as Charlie’s life is upended after discovering her bosses had something to do with the murder of her coworker Natalie (Dascha Polanco). On the run, Charlie gets to know lots of lives (and lies) as she hits the road to escape her powerful ex-employers.
After so much action in just one episode, it is hard to imagine how the following episodes will measure up, and how the show has the time to leisurely pan across the United States as Charlie expresses almost zero concern for her “wanted” status.
The show’s pattern is formulaic, similar to other mystery series like “iZombie,” and each episode follows the same set of rules. By opening with the murder, the audience gets to know the players of the crime before Charlie’s presence is even announced. When the murder occurs, we rewind to find that Charlie has been there all along, and each time she takes it upon herself to discover the truth. Because of this structure, the audience is able to experience the mysterious tension twice — first, watching the buildup to the inevitable murder, and then again watching Charlie solve it from scratch.
Her ability works like a sixth sense in that she can intuitively tell when someone is lying versus when someone is telling the truth. Still, she never found it to be very useful.
“Outside of poker, less useful than you’d think,” she explains to her boss, gesturing with a Heineken, in the series premiere. “Cause everyone, they lie constantly. It’s like birds chirping, people lying. Just once you tune into it, it’s fucking everywhere all the time … So, the real trick of it is to figure out why.”
Although each episode’s individual crimes are not so noteworthy or surprising — acts of jealousy, revenge or covering up the past — the way Charlie uses her gift to solve the murders is where the novelty of “Poker Face” lies.
The series is slow-paced, and Charlie tests out her amateur detective skills in each episode. However, looming ominously to remind viewers of the show’s high stakes is the fact that she’s supposed to be in motion constantly.
Without Lyonne to carry the show, it would not have been such a success. Her laid-back nature and quippy remarks bring the show a quality it could not have achieved without her. It’s like she is always playing a new version of herself with her signature nonchalance and biting sarcasm.
Director Rian Johnson (writer and director of “Knives Out”), told the New York Times that he was inspired by classic 70s and 80s “case-of-the-week shows” like “Columbo” and “Murder She Wrote” when it came to the nostalgic charm of “Poker Face” and Charlie’s character.
From cinematography to dialogue, “Poker Face” exudes a vintage, old-timey vibe that adds to the overall appeal and makes it even more notable that Charlie is the story’s protagonist. She is recognizable and captivating from personality and beyond with her wildly curly shag and her home-on-wheels — the ever-distinguishable baby blue Plymouth Barracuda that ruins her off-the-radar mystique but boosts her cartoon-character uniqueness.
In the same New York Times article, Lyonne spoke of her admiration for women filmmakers when they don’t get bogged down in the “necessity of telling a ‘girl’s story.’”
The Washington Post credits Lyonne with achieving “what male figures in this sort of role can generate more easily: an appealingly casual combination of openness, slouchiness, curiosity and charm that doesn’t lead to sexual violence or even (in most cases) sexual interest.”
Lyonne frequently embodies nearly genderless roles and is well-known, particularly in the queer community, for her portrayal of iconically gay characters, like Nicky in “Orange is the New Black” and Megan in “But I’m A Cheerleader.”
In a separate New York Times interview, Lyonne commented on her connection to the queer community through her characters as a straight lesbian icon.
“I never want to feel like I’m taking ownership of an experience that’s not my own. But it seems like a lot of the female experience is in response to men,” she said. “And when I play a lesbian character, it means that she’s on her own ride … I don’t want my whole life, and certainly, my creative experience, to be in response to always just being ‘the girl,’” she said. “Like, who needs it?”
As Charlie, her sexuality is irrelevant, and as the audience, we don’t question it. She moves freely in the world as a compelling figure, rather than a woman or a man. She is a timeless pleasure to witness on screen and carries the show with utmost ease.
Airing through March 9, “Poker Face” has already been cleared for renewal at Peacock.
Lillian Dunn is an Arts & Entertainment Staff Writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.