What To Watch: "Poker Face"

The Natasha Lyonne series brings back the pleasures of 1970s TV mysteries. Plus: New films in theaters and on demand.

What To Watch: "Poker Face"
Natasha Lyonne in “Poker Face”

Maybe it’s the pandemic and maybe it’s streaming video – the totality of our lifetime of TV habits, available at the press of a finger – but I know a lot of people these days who watch old “Columbo” episodes as comfort food. A film critic of my acquaintance has copped to a ritual end-of-week cool down with Peter Falk’s shambling detective, just an episode or two to remind him that there’s order in the universe and them’s that transgress will always -- always -- be caught by them’s who think.

It's in that spirit that Rian Johnson has given us “Poker Face” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐), a wryly conscious throwback to 1970s anthology shows like “The NBC Mystery of the Week,” from the boilerplate opening credits on down. The series, the first five episodes of which are available on NBCUniversal’s Peacock service, are an hour or so each and somewhat hit-and-miss, but they do more than scratch a nostalgia itch. They honor the pact of those old shows by casting as the criminals a gallery of game name actors who might have better things to do but who probably don’t, and they allow space for one of our more curious stars, Natasha Lyonne, to do her thing.

Lyonne is irreducible: An untamed frizz of red hair – Lucille Ball uncombed – atop eyes like Carol Channing’s and a voice like gravel. From her breakthrough in 2000’s conversion-camp comedy “But I’m a Cheerleader” — available for rent and worth a look — to her apotheosis in the Netflix series “Russian Doll,” Lyonne has been a rough-edged, reliable pleasure, the rare star whose caustic lack of BS seems to neutralize stardom. Lyonne would have flourished in 1930s Hollywood as an Eve Arden-style best friend, undercutting Louis B. Mayer’s homilies every chance she got, but in the modern day she’s a lead actress who seems to constantly question her lead status – or, rather, constantly questions why we’re watching unconditionally, without subjecting the nonsense in which she appears to real-world values and conditions. That sounds like she’s a scold, when Lyonne has evolved into one of the best times on television – a wisecracking slacker who seems to have wandered over nursing a hangover from a better party than the one we’re watching.

In “Poker Face,” she plays Charlie Cale, a free-spirited gig worker drifting from job to job as she drives across the country, solving murders almost by accident. Charlie has a talent – she can tell when people are lying – that’s often more trouble than it’s worth, and each episode of “Poker Face” follows the time-honored TV-mystery rule of first showing us the murder (and the murderer) and then bringing on Charlie to figure out what the audience already knows. This is the opposite of a “whodunnit” – Variety used to call it a “howcatchem,” which is awkward as hell but will have to suffice – and it allows for gracious guest-star hamming in the first half and the Holmesian joys of ratiocination in the second.

S. Epatha Merkerson and Judith Light in “Poker Face”

In the spirit of “Columbo” exhuming talent from the distant and recent past (Ray Milland! Suzanne Pleshette! William Shatner! Celeste Holm!), the guest killers on “Poker Face” include actors like Adrien Brody (playing a scheming casino owner in the initial episode), Lil Rel Howery (a Texas BBQ kingpin), Chloë Sevigny (a washed-up rocker), Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson (aging radicals in assisted living), and Ellen Barkin (a dinner-theater Norma Desmond). All are having a ball, and the last three in particular are absolute delights. That said, the series feels like a step down from Johnson’s “Knives Out” movies. Some of the episodes rely on overly helpful coincidence in places and lack energy in others. The good ones are ace, though, and Lyonne incorporates some classic Lieutenant Columbo tics into her performance, especially the bit where he’d wheel around just before leaving a room, tap his head as if trying to jiggle loose a thought, and drop a damning question in the murderer’s lap.

The first five episodes are available on Peacock now, with new ones being added each Thursday; upcoming guest stars include Tim Blake Nelson, Nick Nolte, Cherry Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (a Rian Johnson featured player), Stephanie Hsu of “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” Rhea Perlman, and Lyonne’s “But I’m a Cheerleader” co-star Clea Duvall. But Peacock, you say? Do I really have to subscribe to another streaming platform if I want to see “Poker Face”? Yes, but remember, you can toggle the service on for a month ($4.99 with ads, $9.99 without) and toggle it off when you’re done, as I’ve explained in an earlier post. (The service may also be available for no extra charge to Xfinity and Spectrum customers.) And, for what it’s worth, the first ten seasons of “Columbo” are there, too.

Anyway, you may want to investigate alternate VOD platforms, because Netflix, the one service everyone has, will soon be cracking down on password sharing and has just posted a FAQ on what subscribers can expect to change. For one thing, you’ll have to verify all the devices on which you use the service, although not once a month as was initially believed to be the case. Users not tied to the account’s home address won’t be allowed to access Netflix, which will throw all those grown kids using their parents’ subscription out into the streaming cold. Netflix has claimed that 100 million households share passwords, which is a lot of lost change for a company that may have reached its market saturation point. That’s also 100 million households that may get angry at the change. Angry enough to drop the service entirely? Watch and see – you can bet the streaming industry will be.

Additional new release notes:  What are four legendary actresses doing chasing after Tom Brady in “80 For Brady (⭐ ⭐, in theaters)? Classing up the joint, mostly. You probably already know if you want to see this broad, amiable, and very silly feature-length advertisement for the NFL or give it a wide berth, but, for the record, stars Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Rita Moreno, and Sally Field do their Golden Girls thing with professionalism and good cheer. And why not? How often do the movies allow older women to celebrate themselves and be celebrated? The film’s based on a true story and has a handful of sharp lines (the script is by the writers of “Booksmart”) and a heart of schmaltz; it’s revealing (in a number of ways) that over at Metacritic, the most positive reviews are from female critics and the most negative are from men. Anyway, if the movie’s not your thing but the stars are, feel free to stay home and revisit “Klute,” “Nashville,” “Norma Rae,” or “West Side Story.”

The Anna Kendrick drama “Alice, Darling” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐), which I reviewed a few weeks ago, is now available as a streaming rental on Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, and elsewhere. And fans of both horror films and the avant-garde might want to check into genre streamer Shudder for a look at “Skinamarink”  (⭐ ⭐ 1/2), a deeply unsettling if overlong mood piece about two children stuck in the twilight of a 1970s house – abandoned? haunted? – that positions director Kyle Edward Ball as one to watch.

Thoughts? Don’t hesitate to weigh in.

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