Rian Johnson's mystery series, 'Poker Face,' is fun stuff -- largely thanks to star Natasha Lyonne | TV review

Jan. 25—Has Rian Johnson's "Glass Onion: Knives Out Mystery" left you hungering for more mysteries to be solved?

That would be understandable given the high quality of his recent Netflix sequel to his 2019 theatrical hit.

Fortunately for you, Johnson hasn't tired of the mystery genre and now offers you the largely entertaining, highly binge-able "Poker Face." The Peacock series starring the distinctly delightful Natasha Lyonne ("Russian Doll") debuts this week with its first four hourlong installments.

Before we go any further, we must point out the biggest difference between the "Knives Out" flicks and "Poker Face," and it isn't that Lyonne's Charlie Cale has little in common with her spiritual big-screen cousin, Daniel Craig's Benoit Blanc.

Whereas "Knives Out" and "Glass Onion" are whodunits, allowing, at least to a degree, the viewer to try to solve a case along with the detective, "Poker Face" is what's known as an inverted detective story, aka a "howcatchem." We see the murder happen early in an episode and then watch the sleuth put the pieces together to solve it. (If you've ever seen an episode of "Columbo," you'll get the idea.)

Really, it's a bit of a bummer.

Get past that, though, and the colorful, creative "Poker Face" is pretty addictive, based on the first six episodes, which NBCUniversal's streaming platform made available for review.

The show's hook is that Charlie is a walking lie detector — she constantly proclaims "bull---" after hearing a falsehood, sometimes under her breath and at others plenty loud enough for the liar to hear. She doesn't know what the truth is, but she reads people well enough that she knows when they're not being straight.

As you might imagine — especially given the show's title — she tried using this gift at poker tables, taking the unexpected card sharks for everything that they had in games here and there. However, her gift soon made her the enemy of a casino owner, who gave her a job as a cocktail waitress in exchange for her not gambling and so he could keep an eye on her.

She begins her journey as an amateur-but-effective detective when a co-worker and close friend from the casino, Natalie (Dascha Polanco, who, like Lyonne, is an alum of Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black"), supposedly is killed by her husband, who died in the event, as well.

The hotel's manager and the owner's ever-disappointing son, Sterling Frost Jr. (Adrien Brody, "See How They Run"), wants to use Charlie's talents to relieve one of the casino's big fishes — "He's our Moby Dick," Sterling says — of a lot of his cash. Problem is, Charlie knows Sterling and his henchman, Cliff Legrand (Benjamin Bratt, "Doctor Strange"), aren't being honest with her when it comes to the nature of Natalie's death. (The truth is she was set to report something disturbing she captured with her phone in the room of said big fish, and Sterling didn't like that idea so much.)

Hopefully, it's not too much of a spoiler to say by the end of the Johson-written-and-directed first episode, "Dead Man's Hand," that Charlie is on the run, roaming the roads via her showing-its-age Plymouth Barracuda.

In each episode, she meets new people — some of whom, as our luck would have it, either will kill or be killed. Charlie has a habit of quickly losing her temporary, cash-paying gigs and really should hit the road as soon as the scene gets a little hot, but this woman can't resist trying to right a wrong.

As suggested by the inclusion of Brody in the first episode, we are treated to a parade of appealing guest players throughout "Poker Face," including Hong Chau ("The Menu," "The Whale"), as Marge, a wisdom-filled truck driver who befriends Charlie in Episode Two, "The Night Shift," directed but not penned by Johnson; Lil Rel Howery ("Get Out," "Free Guy"), as ambitious Texas BBQ-based businessman Taffy Boyle, in the terrific third episode, "The Stall," directed but not penned by Johnson; Chloe Sevigny ("Big Love"), as Ruby Ruin, the singer of a one-hit rock band desperate to reclaim fame in "Rest in Metal," another topnotch installment; and Judith Light ("Who's the Boss?"), as Irene Smother, a one-time revolutionary now living in a retirement home with her longtime partner in crime.

The only episode that disappoints is the sixth, "Exit Stage Death." Set during the production of a play starring old acting partners and bitter enemies (Ellen Barkin and Tim Meadows), it has too many moving pieces and is uncharacteristically messy despite some clever ideas.

Nonetheless, we eagerly await future episodes, including "The Orpheus Syndrome," which debuts Feb. 23, is set to feature Nick Nolte and was directed and co-written by Lyonne.

Johnson ("Looper," "Star Wars: The Last Jedi") returns as the director of the penultimate episode, "Escape From (Expletive) Mountain" (March 2), and as the writer of the season finale, "The Hook." Those installments will feature actors Joseph Gordon Levittt and Ron Perlman, respectively.

Yes, the guest stars are fun, and the writing and direction is generally strong even when Johnson is credited with neither. However, the biggest reason "Poker Face" keeps you going back for more is Lyonne — just as it has been over the two seasons of Netflix's "Russian Doll."

Her cigarette-smoking, beer-drinking heroine is just the right amount of colorful, just the right amount of caring, just the right amount of persistent. Lyonne — whose big-screen credits include "Slums of Beverly Hills" and "American Pie" — may not have the greatest of ranges, but Charlie sits smack dab in the center of her quirky little wheelhouse.

So while we wish we were allowed to solve the mystery with her, we're thrilled she's on the case all the same.

'Poker Face'

What: 10-episode first season of hourlong howcatchem mystery series.

Where: Peacock.

When: First four episodes debut Jan. 26, with subsequent installments coming once a week on Thursdays.

Info: Peacock.com.