Creator: Rian Johnson
They just don’t make them like this anymore, but Rian Johnson is the man to do it. Cornering the market in contemporary-classic crime dramas, following the success of the Agatha-Christie-like whodunnit Knives Out franchise, Johnson’s now reboots the Columbo-style “howdunnit” with a new 10-part crime-of-the-week format on Sky Atlantic anchored by a kookie non-cop protagonist with a quirky and cool persona as well as an ability to tell when someone is lying.
It is also a helpful plot driver in Episode One where the guest star of the week – a deliciously seedy Adrian Brody having a hoot – wants to utilise the skills of casino staff member Charlie to cheat during a private poker game with a super rich client. Bringing Charlie onboard as a consultant to his potential crime, things get complicated when a fellow worker is savagely gunned down in her home, and Charlie is quickly on the trail of the killer, much to their frustration.
Johnson recreates the look and feel of a classic Columbo episode really effectively. Everything from scene length to camera angles and dialogue pays homage to the original series, capturing a particular 1970s made-for-TV aesthetic that feels hugely nostalgic for the type of short-story format that Poker Face so carefully emulates. Yet, for a period piece, Johnson finds a contemporary flair that brings the style into the twenty-first century with gripping plotting and an engaging female lead who will be a fascinating character to follow across multiple episodes as she gets herself into several scrapes and scenarios.
Making Charlie Cale neither a private detective or a cop adds a degree of jeopardy to this first episode as Johnson puts Charlie into the workplace where the crime takes place and gives her a vested interest in finding the killer. But as a relatively powerless civilian, the dynamic has some real consequences that force her to think ingeniously to escape without hiding behind a professional protection. It also creates interesting questions about what happens next and how or where this character will end up as she travels thought nine more mysteries.
Leading the show, Natasha Lyonne plays up the unusual, alternative nature of her character. A brilliant mind that makes associations between loose connections and can spot a liar, there is a real moral centre to Charlie despite the temptation to use her powers to make money. And she has an unusual home life that gives her greater freedom to move around, living in a trailer, drinking a lot and with a potential vendetta that may take her through the series. Lyonne quickly establishes herself in the role with an solid trajectory that will mix the singular crime in each episode with the development of a character and a methodology the viewer will come to know better.
Adrian Brody and Benjamin Bratt are the first guest stars and, as with Columbo, the murderer is revealed at the start of each episode so the audience can sit back and enjoy the performances and how each crime slowly unravels. Brody in particular revels in every moment of his second-generation gangster with daddy issues, but Johnson keeps the whole thing plausible, tying together all the elements and clues to showcase Charlie’s skills in working it all out. With star turns expected from Joseph Gordon-Levett and Chloë Sevigny, Poker Face is a clever homage made for today and you’ll certainly want to tune in for more next week.
Episode 1 of Poker Face will be screened on Sky Max on 26 May.