Poker Face: What Makes Natasha Lyonne's Charlie Cale A Refreshing Detective On The Peacock Show
Warning: some SPOILERS for Poker Face are in play. If you haven’t seen the show yet, you’ve been warned.
A couple of years ago, the internet latched onto a notion that sounded good on paper: Natasha Lyonne as the star of a Columbo reboot. I make the caveat of this idea being preferable “on paper” solely because Lyonne and Glass Onion writer/director Rian Johnson eventually took that idea and one-upped it. Through an original character, crossed with a trusty detective show formula, the Peacock streaming series Poker Face has given the world Charlie Cale, one of the most refreshing detectives on the 2023 TV schedule, and perhaps for all time.
The Howcatchem Formula Needed A Comeback
Let’s flip back to the subject of the classic series Columbo. A fixture on the NBC network between 1968 and 1978, followed by a stint over at ABC with periodic appearances between 1989 and 2003, Peter Falk’s titular detective was presented as a quirky character with “just one more question” that helped him solve murders a’plenty. Most impressively was how the series was always (currently also a Peacock offering) presented as a “howcatchem,” which is the reversal of the “whodunnit” formula.
As the audience would already know who was murdered, who did it and how it happened at the beginning of the episode, the mysteries of Columbo never really mattered. That’s the same formula that Poker Face uses to show us the many mysteries of reformed gambler/human lie detector Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne). It’s a novel formula, especially when whodunnits are on the rise yet again.
But what’s even more exciting is we never know how Charlie is going to get roped into her next case until after we’ve seen the crime committed. It brings another level of guesswork, as we’re not trying to figure out who the culprit is, but rather how Ms. Cale is going to bring the guilty party to justice. It also allows the personality of your detective to shine through, and Ms. Lyonne is certainly no slouch in that department.
A Detective On The Run Makes For A Fun Obstacle To Cracking Cases
Another reason why Charlie Cale’s presence is such a refreshing change of pace is that we never know where Poker Face’s amateur sleuth is going to pop up next. This is thanks to her first case solved, which saw Charlie outing her boss Sterling Frost Jr. (Adrien Brody) as the man who ordered the murder of her friend Natalie (Dascha Polanco). With Sterling Jr. driven to suicide after being caught red handed, his father (Ron Perlman) is now on a quest to hunt Charlie down in revenge.
So not only is Poker Face a weekly showcase for Natasha Lyonne’s wisecracks and powers of deduction, it’s also one big chase story. One false move is all it takes to put her in a ticking clock scenario, as it only takes four hours for Frost family enforcer Cliff LeGrand (Benjamin Bratt) to catch up with the latest clues to her whereabouts.
In some cases, the wire is razor thin, with Charlie Cale solving murders just as Cliff arrives at her most recent location. Amping up the already high stakes of delivering justice before the killers become suspicious, there's always the potential for the next Poker Face murder to be Charlie herself.
Charlie Cale Actually Cares About The Cases She Solves
While Charlie Cale does get a joy out of being able to be the smartest person in the room, it’s not why she solves the cases she encounters. In a case of ethics that almost matches the mission statement of Quantum Leap, Charlie strives to put right what’s gone fatally wrong because she actually cares. Several scenarios even see her accidentally putting victims and suspects into the crosshairs of these murderous crimes, which can be both hysterical and heartbreaking.
Take the case featured in Episode 3, “The Stall,” which sees Charlie temporarily working at a barbeque joint in Texas. All it takes is lending restaurant owner George (Larry Brown) a copy of Netflix’s Okja on DVD, bittersweet ending and all, to send the now-former pork merchant on the path to veganism.
His resulting murder, plotted by his wife (Danielle MacDonald) and brother/co-owner (Lil’ Rel Howery), becomes Charlie Cale’s case-of-the-week after she becomes personally invested in figuring out who tried to kill a rather nasty dog in connection to said murder. Again, Charlie’s not doing this because she’s trying to be the greatest consulting detective ever, but rather because of the fact that she has empathy for the victims.
Rotating Guest Stars Keep Things Exciting
New locations with fresh murders and unique solutions are a huge part of Poker Face's formula of success. However, the factor that really kicks the whole thing over into refreshingly impressive territory is the old fashioned gimmick of weekly guest stars.
Already in the first four episodes, we’ve seen Academy Award winner Adrien Brody, Lil’ Rel Howery, 2023 Academy Award nominee Hong Chau and Rian Johnson favorite Noah Segan all pop up in various roles. Not knowing who’s going to show up next is part of the fun, since it gives Charlie Cale new personalities to square off against. (Though the foreknowledge that another Johnson good luck charm, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, will be appearing is just as anticipated.)
As this week’s episode marks the halfway point of Season 1, plenty of new faces await in the weeks to come. That’s not just when it comes to the murderers either, as suspects, victims and even odd characters who may or not be narcs (John Hodgman) add color to each week’s round of action. No matter who shows up, it’s just more fun and games that Natasha Lyonne gets to partake in, as we wind towards what should be an explosive finale and hopefully several seasons worth of mysteries to come.
Poker Face debuts brand-new episodes every Thursday, with the first four already available to stream. A Peacock subscription is required to get in on the fun, and a special year-long subscription offer is just the ticket to seeing what this platform has to offer.