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Natasha Lyonne’s well-played old Jewish man shtick makes ‘Poker Face’ a sure bet


NEW YORK — In the morning, when my wife and I have time, we share breakfast and turn the page on our Daily Jumble calendar. Remember the Jumble? It’s that game where you find hidden words in a scramble, then take highlighted letters from each word to answer a final clue. We’re good at it, but not great. Once in a while we get stuck, and when there’s no hope left (and we’ve got to get to work) I’ll hit “Jumble Solver” on my phone and find the answer.

Don’t tell her I said this, but I kinda love when this happens. Now I know the answer, but she doesn’t, and I can guide her there. It’s extremely gratifying.

I have no idea if actress Natasha Lyonne or writer-director Rian Johnson, the key creative forces of the new series “Poker Face,” play the Daily Jumble. But I do know they drew from their love of “Columbo” when developing this show. (This is evident from the very first frame; the font of the titles is the same.)

In “Columbo,” (a TV franchise that aired off and on for over 20 years) Peter Falk played a detective that always found the bad guy, but one of the elements that made the show great was that we, the audience, watch the crime happen first, then we got to watch a really sharp (and funny) character figure it out.

They say good artists copy but geniuses steal. And “Poker Face” — debuting on streaming service Peacock on January 26 — does just that, to marvelous effect. There are, of course, some changes. Lyonne’s Charlie Cale is not employed by the Los Angeles Police Department. She’s a woman on the run from Nevada gangsters (for complicated reasons that are explained in the premiere.) In each new episode, pop culture’s finest disheveled wisenheimer Jewess roams the American countryside, and stumbles into a murder wherever she goes. Authorities declare it an accident, but she knows better. Because she actually is a superhero.

No, no, she doesn’t wear a cape (she sticks to trucker hats, black jeans, and the occasional vest) but she is gifted with the ability to know when someone is lying. Whether it’s a simple white lie people tell (like who is in the bathroom) or someone fibbing about loving their spouse, she can just tell. (This secret power, with the title “Poker Face,” may help to explain why she’s not beloved by casino mobsters.) What makes each week’s adventure so neat is that this (admittedly far-fetched) trait is crossed with being good-but-not-great at putting together clues. Like my wife and I with the Jumble, she often gets close to figuring things out, but then needs assistance. (A recurring gag is when she takes the actual criminal into her confidence, not realizing she’s tipping her hand to the villain.)

Lyonne (born Braunstein) grew up in an Orthodox family in New York (and, briefly, in Israel), and was a child actor. (Yes, that’s her as the redhead on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.”) When she was 16 she was cast as Woody Allen’s daughter in “Everyone Says I Love You” and killed it, following up as the star in Tamra Jenkins’s fantastic “Slums of Beverly Hills.” (As Alan Arkin’s daughter this time. What a back-to-back.) In the early 2000s, however, some wild behavior took its toll. There were legal and medical issues and, for a spell, it looked like Lyonne was destined to be one of those early talents that flamed out. Her recent output (not just “Poker Face” and “Russian Doll,” but “Orange is the New Black,” and being a ubiquitous guest presence on so many hip comedies and in animation) is one of the great comeback stories. Right now, there are few actors that are more compelling.

Rian Johnson, the writer-director of “Knives Out” and its sequel “Glass Onion,” “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” “Looper” and more, is credited as creator of the show, and he wrote and he directed some of the individual episodes. If Johnson has an imprimatur it is one of being “crafty,” and that’s felt in spades in each new adventure. But the show, sparked from a dinner conversation he had with Lyonne, wouldn’t amount to much without the performer’s unique presence front and center.

What’s so exciting is how specific a character Charlie Cale is. As in “Russian Doll,” she’s a woman in her early 40s who kinda-sorta acts like a man in his 70s. (This is meant as a loving compliment, I swear!) She is an “old soul,” but this time less of a curmudgeon. Indeed, it’s her bright spirit that puts her at the center of a new criminal whirlwind each week. Wherever she goes, she’ll make friends; the right people are drawn to her, and though she’s putting herself at risk, the drive to correct injustice is the show’s engine. She’s 100 percent righteous and uses her powers for good — even when there’s a pain in the ass dog most people would leave at the side of the road.

Left to right: Jack Alcott as Randy, Charles Melton as Davis Mcdowell, and Natasha Lyonne as Charlie Cale in ‘Pokerface.’ (Phillip Caruso/Peacock)

Most of the cultural topics I cover here at The Times of Israel are noble, intellectual pursuits. But you can’t (and shouldn’t) be serious all the time. I won’t misrepresent and call “Poker Face” anything too meaningful “as a text.” But I will say that Lyonne, Johnson (and Johnson’s longtime Israeli producer Ram Bergman) aren’t dashing off light entertainment with a shrug. Each episode (critics were given the first six of 10) really sings, with clever “aha!” moments, juicy appearances from a slew of great actors (Lil Rel Howerey, Chloë Sevigny, Adrien Brody, Judith Light, Hong Chau, Noah Segan, and others) and outstanding uses of music. I never thought I’d hear Donald Fagen’s “Walk Between The Raindrops” in a murder mystery.

That specific fact may not sound like one to get you subscribing to Peacock but there’s so much that’s smart and fun in this show that it won’t take much sleuthing until you feel like this show was made just for you. Like “Columbo,” I hope it lasts for decades.

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