The sleek, involving first episode, written and directed by Johnson, is among the best. The murder happens at a garish Las Vegas-like hotel and casino, and the episode is shot to look like a 1970s television show, with saturated colours and ominous music cues. That playful look works once, then Johnson smartly drops it for more cinematic approaches in later instalments. He knows how far to mimic a formula and when to throw it away. (Other writers and directors take over, starting with episode three.)
When a hotel maid (Dasha Polanco) discovers a horrifying image on a guest’s computer in that first story, she notifies the hotel manager, played with perfect smarminess by Adrien Brody. Establishing the show’s pattern, Charlie turns up about 20 minutes in and the timeline shifts back to before the murder, with scenes telling us why she was around in the first place. Here she turns up as a cocktail waitress wearing a goofy feathered hat.
It’s enough to say that things go wrong and Charlie has to flee, with the casino’s hitman, (Benjamin Bratt) chasing after her. Bratt’s character gives the series its slender continuity and a reason for Charlie to travel around under the radar, taking jobs as a waitress or a cleaner, trying to stay a step ahead of the killer.
The guests are not mega movie stars, but familiar faces. In one episode, Chloe Sevigny, who played Lyonne’s character’s mother in Russian Doll’s flashbacks, stars as Ruby Ruin, a has-been singer in a metal band, now working at a warehouse. She gets the band back together and goes on the road, with Charlie selling their T-shirts. Like the Knives Out mysteries, Poker Face walks the line between straightforward and tongue-in-cheek, but where the films land on the campier side, the series is more invested in its plots. No detail is too small or silly to be a clue or a red herring, including the title of the metal band’s one hit, Staplehead.
Lil Rel Howery plays the co-owner of a Texas barbecue restaurant, whose brother wants to quit the business, saying, “I’m going vegan”. Wit always takes precedence over seriousness here. Someone falls off a roof at a rest stop in New Mexico, where Charlie meets a trucker played by Hong Chau (The Whale). She later works at a retirement home and befriends 1970s radicals gleefully played by Judith Light and S Epatha Merkerson.
One other nostalgic touch: like those old series, Poker Face is not necessarily made to binge. It’s there, ready whenever you feel like a reassuring, cosy mystery that’s more rumpled crime-solver than Miss Marple.
Poker Face premieres on 26 January on Peacock in the US
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