‘Poker Face’ review: Natasha Lyonne and ‘Knives Out’ creator Rian Johnson channel some of that old ‘Columbo’ magic

A cut above the best, the Peacock murder mystery series “Poker Face” scratches all my old-school “Columbo” itches — and does it without putting a police detective at the center. Natasha Lyonne stars as a cocktail waitress on the run from a casino boss. She’s driving cross country with no real destination in mind, stumbling upon crimes at every pitstop.

Talkative and droll, she can clock a bluff. A useful skill until heavies in the gambling world catch on. But once she’s on the lam, those qualities plus a moral compass make her a lively detective-stand in.

She’s nosey enough, and curious enough, to unravel these various crimes without even meaning to. She’s just asking questions, see? Because the party line doesn’t make sense. The lies are everywhere. She’d much rather lay low, take the occasional short-term job and keep her head down. But there’s a dead body. And suspicious circumstances. She can’t help herself. So there she is, sussing things out with an offbeat quizzicalness that’s not unlike her aforementioned spiritual predecessor. Both embody the antithesis of glossy or sleek, but instead of a cigar and rumpled raincoat, her defining look is ‘80s hairband chic: Fried locks, cowboy boots and a pair of skinny jeans.

The show comes from Rian Johnson, the writer-director of “Knives Out” and “Glass Onion,” both of which I liked fine. I think he’s found a stronger way into the genre with “Poker Face.” The movies, to me, spend too much time winking at whodunit conventions rather than unlocking what makes them tick. The Peacock series takes a smarter approach by embracing the tropes while slightly reworking them to land on a scratchy-piquant humor all its own. (Maya Rudolph is an executive producer here as well.)

I say “whodunit,” but that’s wrong: As with “Columbo,” each episode begins with the crime itself. We already know whodunit, leaving us with a wily game of cat-and-mouse as Lyonne’s human lie detector pieces together the truth behind all these artful lies and misdirections.

It’s a stacked list of guest stars: Adrien Brody as a man looking to fleece a high roller; Chloë Sevigny as a one-hit wonder angling for a rock star comeback; Lil Rel Howery as a crooked BBQ entrepreneur; S. Epatha Merkerson and Judith Light as pot-smoking ex-radicals; Benjamin Bratt as the enigmatic casino muscle who’s on her trail. Everyone’s playing it just larger-than-life, which works in terrific contrast to Lyonne’s offhanded energy.

These are crimes borne of greed or revenge or just an empty hole in someone’s gut where their soul used to be. The deep flaws of humanity are on display, and yet the show never slips into the grim. Tonally, it is a sly mix of absurdist humor and bad impulses.

You need a consistent and entertaining center to keep things grounded and Lyonne’s shrugging-charismatic performance is as deft as they come. How does she manage to have chemistry with everyone? I don’t know, but she does. I’ll never tire of the way she plays with dialogue, delivered with that born-in-New York accent: Peter Falk meets Penny Marshall. Bring back regional accents to television!

The character’s a drifter and a solo artist who is constantly asked: Married? Kids? (She’s not thinking about it, why the hell is anybody else?) Left unexamined is her worldview, which I’m not sure I even realized until an episode when she teams up with the FBI. She embodies a light cynicism that suggests she might be skeptical of institutions of power. Or not. The show is surprisingly vague on this point.

For the most part, “Poker Face” gingerly sidesteps around the messiness of copaganda altogether. If there’s unexpected playfulness in the case-of-the-week format, it also gives an otherwise aimless character a sense of purpose.

Here’s something that might seem positively radical: Sisters and co-showrunners Nora and Lilla Zuckerman embrace the throwback sensibility of the weekly murder mystery and stick with the traditional pacing and structure that was once a staple of television. I’ll never understand why executives nearly wiped these kinds of shows off the programming slate in favor of TV-as-neverending-movie.

With “Poker Face,” it’s as if Hollywood never skipped a beat. The format demands new characters and a new setting every time and the challenge is always: Make the unfamiliar compelling from the jump. Sometimes I’ll watch “Murder, She Wrote” just to remind myself what that can look like — and that it used to be the norm. I’ve often wondered if this kind of TV writing was a lost art. It’s mostly been relegated to cop shows these days, where the emphasis is blunt force over deductive reasoning.

But here’s a persuasive case for what we knew all along: TV shows like “Columbo” and “Murder, She Wrote” (or any of the other oldies; you name it, the Hallmark Channel has it) can and should fill what is actually a not-so-niche corner of the TV landscape.

Early on, someone asks Lyonne’s character: What is it like, always knowing the truth?

“Eh, yeah, no — I only know if something is a lie. And outside of poker it’s less useful than you’d think. ‘Cause everyone? They lie constantly. It’s like birds chirping.”

It’s everywhere, all the time, and usually about meaningless stuff.

“The real trick of it is to figure out why.”

“Poker Face” — 4 stars (out of 4)

Where to watch: Peacock

Nina Metz is a Tribune critic

nmetz@chicagotribune.com