“Poker Face” Is a Delightfully Absurdist Murder Show With the Best Guest Stars

Author’s Note: This review of Peacock’s Poker Face contains some minor spoilers

In Poker Face, Rian Johnson’s new murder-of-the-week comedy-drama starring Natasha Lyonne as a gritty, goofy, newfangled Columbo, mysteries hinge not on who was killed or why but rather how they’re caught. It follows the inverted detective story format popularized by Columbo, with a couple of crucial twists: Our leading murder mystery solver is not a cop at all, and she also has a casual supernatural ability. She knows when someone is intentionally lying.

This walking lie detector ability comes in handy when Charlie (Lyonne) is cutting across the country robbing professional poker players blind with her innate talent for calling bluffs. But by the time we meet her at the start of Poker Face, she’s just working in a casino, banned from most game settings for playing it a little too fast and loose. In this opening installment, the story acts at first as if it’s setting us up for a classic poker heist; the new owner of the casino (Adrien Brody) who’s up to his ears with daddy issues wants to use Charlie and her gift to swindle a big shot gambling guy who has been ripping off the casino by hosting his own private games. This doesn’t end up being the crux of the episode though; instead, everything in Charlie’s life is thrown off-kilter when her good friend (Dascha Polanco) turns up dead. When no one will give her straight answers and the cops turn out to not only be worthless but corrupt, Charlie takes it upon herself to solve the case herself. After she does, she has to hit the road in her Plymouth Barracuda, on the run from the men who want her dead.

Along the way, Charlie stops in small towns to work odd jobs, solving murders on the side. After the first, every episode of Poker Face opens like a short story. We see the murders play out in a much more in-depth and drawn out way than just a cold open. In these first acts, Charlie is nowhere to be seen. Instead, we meet the episode’s characters of the week. We see who is killed, by whom, and why. There’s specificity to each of these kills — not solely in how they’re done but in those motives and the stakes for each character. Class, place, family, greed, power, these murders are shot through with charged tension and real, human layers, even when they play out in over-the-top fashion. After the murder, the timeline rewinds, and we see things unfold from Charlie’s point of view. With the help of her bullshit detection, she nabs the killer every time.

The various characters of the week are all instantly memorable, thanks in large part to exceptional guest stars. Hong Chau stars as Marge, a queer long-haul trucker who teaches Charlie about life on the road (but much to my dismay — and Marge’s! — they do not hook up). In a standout episode, Chloë Sevigny stars as Ruby Ruin, ruthless lead singer of a struggling heavy metal band that has never really found its fame following the runaway success of an early single. In another standout, Ellen Barkin and Tim Meadows play egotistical actors who are former co-stars turned nemeses. Lots of familiar queer faces will appear over the course of the show, including Clea DuVall, Cherry Jones, and Rowan Blanchard.

The murderers are distinct from one another, ranging vastly in terms of how skilled they are at covering up their crimes and in how they interact with Charlie. And while all the kills are very much intentional, some are more meticulously premeditated than others. Poker Face manages to be an absurdist comedy while also asserting that humans will commit violence against each other for a laundry list of self-serving reasons. It’s like Criminal Minds meets an 80s sitcom. Comedy and the macabre intermingle throughout, and it’s like a string of card tricks that Poker Face makes it all work without feeling dissonant or hokey — with the exception of a couple moments later in the season.

One of the most compelling things about Charlie is that she’s not a cop, so when the show aligns her too closely with cops, it falters. The show’s fifth episode “Time of the Monkey” — which stars Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson as close conspirators in a retirement community whose friendship goes back to the radical political activism they did in the 70s — unfortunately falls into that unimaginative trap. But to really get into it, I’d have to spoil it, so I’ll be back with another in-depth look at that episode when it airs next week. But even amid some of that episode’s missteps, Light and Merkerson give tremendous performances that nearly save it.

Lyonne, it probably goes without saying, is also superb throughout. She proved over and over again in Russian Doll that both “charming, sharp-tongue protagonist” and “comedy meets macabre” are very much her wheelhouse. There’s also an underlying tension that Charlie might not always be a totally reliable narrator, even though her whole thing is pointing out when others are acting as such. The character is a bit of an enigma (I cannot for the life of me figure out if she’s queer, straight, etc.!), but it mostly works. We learn about her through her interactions with others, through the ways she holds up a mirror to them, exposes them, figures out what makes them tick. She’s smart, but she isn’t infallible. I’m hoping we’ll peel back more layers to her as the season progresses, but regardless, I’m having so much fun with the characters of the week that I don’t need Charlie to be much more than a device.

Poker Face may employ a straightforward formula to tell its murder mysteries, but each episode brims with specificity, working as standalones but also working together to tell a wacky tale with genuine emotional stakes. The twists land, and it so adeptly mines the inverted detective story format for thrills and laughs. And even when it veers off course, the guest performances keep it entertaining as hell.

The first four episodes of Poker Face are now available to stream on Peacock, and the remaining episodes will air weekly. I’ll be back next week to write specifically about the fifth episode.

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 843 articles for us.


  1. ” The character is a bit of an enigma (I cannot for the life of me figure out if she’s queer, straight, etc.!),”

    heh. I finished ep1 wondering if the show realized its lead is gay. no idea what they want us to think, but I guess from the creators of Benoit Blanc I can afford a little patience.

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