Will ‘Poker Face’ Start Episodic TV Trend?
Serial killer? Peacock series brings back crime-of-the-week format
Poker Face, a weekly mystery drama, debuts on Peacock January 26. Rian Johnson, director of Netflix whodunits Knives Out and Glass Onion, created the show and is director and executive producer. Natasha Lyonne stars as scruffy Charlie Cale. She stumbles upon a new mystery each episode, sorts it out with her unconventional skill set, then hits the road in her aging Plymouth Barracuda.
There are ten episodes. Four come out January 26, and new episodes then premiere on Thursdays.
Sisters Nora and Lilla Zuckerman are showrunners and executive producers. Most everything in the peak-TV era is highly serialized, but Poker Face episodes have a beginning, middle and end. “It’s very old school, a more traditional crime-of-the-week throwback, but also completely modern,” said Lilla Zuckerman. “Rian’s sensibility, in terms of really intricate storytelling, super-rich characters and a wry sense of humor, is threaded throughout the entire show.”
The Zuckermans are curious if Poker Face starts a trend of non-serialized programming in the modern-TV era. “Sometimes you need palate cleansers,” said Nora. “Sometimes you want to sit and see a complete story, have that satisfying experience of a single episode of television. I think people are really gonna welcome it. In some way, it may reawaken people’s appetites for that kind of storytelling.”
At TCA press tour, Johnson said the ten episodes are “nearly completely standalone.”
“The intention with this show, the thing that got me really excited about it at the start, was the idea of doing a truly episodic, case-of-the-week mystery show, like the kind of stuff I used to watch constantly when I was sitting in front of the TV as a kid,” he added.
The show shot in and around Newburgh, New York, about 60 miles north of New York City, with the Hudson River Valley “doubling for all over America,” as Nora put it.
“We needed a location that could serve a lot of angles,” she added. “A location that could look like the south, the midwest, the east coast.”
Lilla said the show visits “the less celebrated, hidden little corners” of America. She likens Poker Face to “Agatha Christie, but at Shoney’s, at Cracker Barrel, at the gas station on the side of the road.”
Lyonne’s Charlie has a unique gift: She can tell when people are lying. She made a lot of money at the poker table, thanks to that skill, but when the pilot rolls, she’s waitressing at a casino. Lilla mentioned TV investigators, including Magnum and Columbo, that the viewer actually wants to hang out with. Rian Johnson saw Lyonne in Russian Doll, and regarded her as a detective viewers would want to hang with.
“I thought, here is somebody who has the presence and the charisma on the screen that I would just want to come back and be with her every week and see her win,” he said at press tour.
Lyonne brought wit and wisdom to the set. “Natasha Lyonne delivers on the promise of being Natasha Lyonne,” Lilla said. “She’s absolutely her authentic self. She would come to the set full of energy, full of joy, cracking jokes, keeping things loose.”
The joy and humor, she added, almost hide the “consummate professional” Lyonne represents.
Lyonne executive produces with Johnson, the Zuckermans, Ram Bergman, Nena Rodrigue and Iain B. Macdonald. Lyonne spoke a bit about Charlie’s ability to read people at press tour. “What's so fun about the way Rian has crafted it is, it's just enough that it gets her in through the door, but it's not a superpower,” she said. “Still, she has to go about solving that sort of suspicion and following that thread all the way through in a very human, practical way that's much more just a puzzle than it is a power.”
The guest cast goes on and on, and includes Adrien Brody, Benjamin Bratt, Chloe Sevigny, Clea DuVall, Ellen Barkin, Jameela Jamil, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Judith Light, Lil Rel Howery, Luis Guzman, Nick Nolte, Rhea Perlman, S. Epatha Merkerson and Tim Meadows.
Lilla said stars were attracted to the project because they got to play a different kind of part.
“We welcomed them and said, hey, you don’t [normally] get to play a murderer, or the victim of a gruesome murder, or the sidekick to Charlie Cale,” she said. “We got people because we wrote some juicy, meaty, diabolical roles.”
Reviews have been positive. Entertainment Weekly gave Poker Face an A, and called it “the crime show of the year.” (opens in new tab)
“For all Poker Face's pop history, you could define it by absences. Here's a detective with no home, no gun, no phone, no supporting cast, a past to escape, and a doomed future. Hell of a hand, I'm all in,” it said.
Time will tell if viewers go for the throwback mystery of the week. “Every episode is its own thing,” said Nora. “There hasn’t been a show quite like this, at least not in a long time.” ■
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Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.