Poker Face episode 1 review: “Takes the hardboiled detective story to a new level”

Our review of Poker Face episode 1

Poker Face
(Image: © Peacock)

GamesRadar+ Verdict

Poker Face is a fun, smart modern-day take on the whodunnit genre and it's off to a great start for what’s sure to be one hell of a ride.

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Warning: Spoilers for Poker Face episode 1 follow.

Since 2005’s Brick, Rian Johnson has proven himself to be something of a master when it comes to the whodunit genre. While viewers might be expecting his first foray into television to be a lot like Knives Out or Glass Onion, Johnson actually takes the hardboiled detective story to a whole new level with Poker Face. 

Like all good detective stories, the premiere starts with a murder. Natalie (Dascha Polanco), a maid at the Frost Casino and Hotel, is working her normal shift when she enters a suite. Her attention suddenly turns to an open laptop, one that contains something so shocking it causes her to drop her towel, take a picture, and run straight to the higher-ups: casino owner Sterling Frost (Adrian Brody) and his bodyguard/lackey Cliff (Benjamin Bratt).

"This is beyond just moral revulsion," Sterling tells Natalie. "This is illegal. You did the right thing." Those last few words hang over the rest of the episode, as doing the right thing ultimately costs Natalie her life. Cliff rushes to Natalie’s house, kills her husband, shoots her upon arrival, and places the gun in her husband’s hand. 

We rewind to the days leading up to the murder and boom: Enter Charlie Cale, Natasha Lyonne’s firecracker of a character who lives alone in a trailer and is a friend and coworker to Natalie. Though the series is a mystery thriller, Charlie is no gumshoe. We learn that she’s a cocktail waitress that just so happens to have an interesting gift: she’s a human lie detector. She doesn’t necessarily know the truth, but she can easily read a lie. 

Poker Face

(Image credit: Peacock)

As it turns out, the owner of the laptop is a millionaire highroller whose money is keeping what’s left of the Frost Casino alive. Sterling is well aware of Charlie’s gift: she was hired by Frost Sr., Sterling’s father, after being blackballed in the gambling world for using her unique ability to 'play dirty.' Sterling wants to use Charlie’s gift, which allows her to tell when a player is bluffing before putting down a card, in order to con Cane out of a million-dollar game.

The series is structured as a procedural: we see the murder, the flashback, where Charlie was during the murder, we catch up with present-time, and she solves it. Though we, the viewer, immediately know what happened to Natalie – Charlie doesn’t. Natalie’s death is ruled as a murder-suicide, Charlie’s unknowingly agreed to work with the very men who killed her, and we’re sat on the edge of our seats as Charlie spends the rest of the 60-minute episode putting together the pieces. 

Columbo followed the same format: making it a 'howcatchem' rather than a 'whodunnit.' but Charlie is a lot more like Murder She Wrote’s Jessica Fletcher than Lieutenant Columbo. Jessica was a retired English teacher turned mystery novelist – and it’s her creative thinking that always put her one step ahead of the cops. In a way, Johnson has combined two of the most popular icons in the detective genre and morphed them into a modern-day, perhaps a bit more relatable gal with a weird gift who’s just trying to get by. We might not be able to connect to the day-to-day life of a blue-collar homicide detective or a rich and famous writer, but we can all definitely see a piece of ourselves in Charlie. She’s an underdog, an ordinary person with a unique ability – which gets her into all different kinds of trouble.

Poker Face

(Image credit: Peacock)

It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing bullshit-detector Charlie Cale other than Lyonne, who completely transforms into the cool, kind-hearted underdog who knows in her gut that getting involved with the underbelly of the casino is far from a good idea. It’s Lyonne that makes the show fun, despite its dark themes of domestic violence and potential sex trafficking. The closer Charlie gets to cracking the case, the more excited the viewer becomes. It’s a little bit meta as after we witness the crime, we start to put on our own detective hats and figure out how Charlie herself will solve the murder. The fun is not in solving the crime ourselves, but in watching the way Charlie cleverly comes closer and closer to finding out the truth.

Poker Face is a modern throwback of a genre we haven’t seen since the '90s. Sure, Knives Out’s Benoit Blanc is an icon in his own right, but Charlie Cale is the relatable hero we’ve all been waiting for. Each episode pits her against a brand new guest star, and God only knows what other horrors she’ll encounter while on the run. We’re off to a great start for what’s sure to be one hell of a ride.

Poker Face premieres on Peacock January 26 with four episodes, followed by a new episode streaming on Thursdays. 

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Lauren Milici
Senior Writer, Tv & Film

Lauren Milici is a Senior Entertainment Writer for GamesRadar+ currently based in the Midwest. She previously reported on breaking news for The Independent's Indy100 and created TV and film listicles for Ranker. Her work has been published in Fandom, Nerdist, Paste Magazine, Vulture, PopSugar, Fangoria, and more.