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In ‘Poker Face,’ Rian Johnson and Natasha Lyonne deal up a small-stakes TV mystery

<i>Sara Shatz/Peacock</i><br/>Natasha Lyonne in
Sara Shatz/Peacock
Sara Shatz/Peacock
Natasha Lyonne in "Poker Face

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

Designed as a modern spin on an old formula, “Poker Face” represents another point of entry into TV detective shows, teaming Natasha Lyonne with “Knives Out” writer-producer Rian Johnson. Breezy but thin, it’s mildly fun but not quite a winning hand, defined as much by its guest stars as Lyonne in what’s basically a cross between “Murder, She Wrote” and “The Incredible Hulk” of the 1970s.

Playing on NBC’s Peacock service, the premiere introduces Lyonne’s Charlie, a casino employee in Vegas who has been hiding her unique (and potentially very profitable) gift: The ability to look at anyone and tell whether they’re lying.

Pressed to put that skill to use by a casino manager (Adrien Brody), the whole situation goes South, forcing Charlie to hit the road, taking her talent from city to city, where she invariably ends up using it to help solve a murder.

The framework here is that each episode features a rather lengthy prologue that lets the audience know not only what the crime was but who did it. The viewer is thus a step ahead of Charlie as she stumbles on what happened and — by virtue of what’s said, and what isn’t — sorts out the details.

For those who don’t remember the Hulk series that starred Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, it basically employed a similar format, sending him from town to town, “The Fugitive” style, where he used his hidden powers to help people he encountered. Charlie isn’t much different, reluctant as she is to call attention to herself even if she never actually turns green.

Lyonne has enjoyed quite a run in television following her indie-queen foundation, from the ensemble of “Orange is the New Black” to “Russian Doll,” which broke into smaller pieces, creatively speaking, in its second season.

Still, her sardonic delivery makes her a somewhat unorthodox fit for this sort of throwback exercise, and “Poker Face” appears to be working hard — sometimes a little too hard — at trying to match that quirky sensibility of its various plots, which include murders involving a retirement home, a community theater and a punk-rock band in the episodes previewed.

Like the “Knives Out” movies, Johnson has been able to populate the show with topnotch actors, featuring the likes of Benjamin Bratt, Chloë Sevigny, Dascha Polanco, Ellen Barkin, Hong Chau, Jameela Jamil, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Judith Light, Nick Nolte, and S. Epatha Merkerson, among others.

As noted, the detective mystery is among TV’s most durable genres, and Johnson and Lyonne (who also holds an executive producer credit) appear to have had a ball sprucing it up for the streaming age.

That said, “Poker Face” plays a pretty small-stakes game. That might well add up to a winner by Peacock’s standards, but it isn’t worth going “All in” on it just yet.

“Poker Face” premieres with its first four (of 10) episodes January 26 on Peacock.

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