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

NEW YORK – In the mornings, when my wife and I have time, we share breakfast and flip through our daily jumbled calendars. Remember Jumble? This is the game where you find the hidden words in a scramble, then take the highlighted letters from each word to answer the final clue. We are good at it, but not great. Sometimes we get stuck, and when there’s no hope left (and we have to get to work) I hit up “Jumble Solver” on my phone and look for answers.

Don’t tell him I said this, but I love it when it happens. Now I know the answer, but she doesn’t, and I can guide her there. This is a matter of great happiness.

I don’t know whether actress Natasha Lyonne or writer-director Rian Johnson, the prime creative forces of the new series “Poker Face,” play the Daily Jumble. But I do know that he drew from his love of “Colombo” when developing the show. (This is clear from the first frame; the font of the titles is the same.)

In “Colombo” (a TV franchise that aired for more than 20 years) Peter Falk played a detective who always found the bad guy, but one of the elements that made the show great was that we, the audience, see The crime happens first, then we got to see some really sharp (and funny) characters.

It is said that good artists copy but geniuses steal. And “Poker Face” — debuting on streaming service Peacock on January 26 — does just that to amazing effect. Of course there are some variations. Charlie Cale of Leon is not employed by the Los Angeles Police Department. She’s a woman on the run from Nevada gangsters (for complicated reasons explained in the premiere.) In each new episode, pop culture’s finest disordered Wiesenheimer Jewess roams the American countryside, stumbling into a murder wherever she goes. Has an account. The authorities declare it an accident, but she knows better. Because he really is a superhero.

No, no, she doesn’t wear a cloak (she wears a trucker hat, black jeans, and the occasional vest) but she is gifted with the ability to tell when someone is lying. Whether it’s the simple white lies people tell (like who’s in the bathroom) or someone lying about being in love with their spouse, she just can tell. (This secret power, along with the titular “Poker Face”, may help explain why he isn’t beloved by casino mobsters.) What makes each week’s adventure so neat is that it’s (admittedly far Penny) feature crosses over with being good- but -not great at putting together clues. Like my wife and I with Jumble, she often gets close to figuring things out, but then needs help. (A recurring gag is when she takes the real criminal into her confidence, not realizing she’s handing the villain away.)

Lyon (born Braunstein) grew up in an Orthodox family in New York (and, briefly, in Israel), and was a child actor. (Yes, that’s as Redhead on “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.”) When she was 16, she was cast as Woody Allen’s daughter in “Everybody Says I Love You” and starred in Tamra Jenkins’ Fabulous “He was killed in Chasing Her as a Star.” slums of Beverly Hills.” (This time as Alan Arkin’s daughter. What followed.) However, in the early 2000s, some wild behavior took its toll. There were legal and medical issues and, a As for Magic, it seemed like Leone should have been one of the earliest talents that flared up. Her recent output (not only “Poker Face” and “Russian Doll,” but also “Orange Is the New Black,” and being a ubiquitous guest appearance in so many hip comedies and animation) is one of the great comeback stories. Right now, there are few actors who are more compelling.

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

What’s so exciting is how specific the character of Charlie Kell is. As for “Russian Doll”, she is a woman in her early 40s who acts somewhat like a man in his 70s. (It’s meant as a loving compliment, I swear!) She’s an “old soul,” but less of a curmudgeon this time around. Indeed, it is his bright spirit that keeps him at the center of a new criminal whirlwind every week. Wherever she goes, she will make friends; The right people are drawn to her, and though she is putting herself at risk, the drive to right injustice is the engine of the show. She’s 100 percent righteous and uses her powers for good – even when a pain in the ass dog is most people left by the wayside.

From left to right: Jack Alcott as Randy, Charles Melton as Davis McDowell, and Natasha Lyonne as Charlie Cale in ‘Pokerface’. (Philip Caruso / Peacock)

Most of the cultural topics I cover here at The Times of Israel are great, intellectual pursuits. But you can’t (and shouldn’t) be serious all the time. I will not misrepresent “poker face” and say anything meaningful “as text”. But I will say that Leone, Johnson (and Johnson’s longtime Israeli producer Ram Bergman) are not shouldering light entertainment. Each episode (critics gave the first six out of 10) is a really sing-along, clever “Ah!” moments, lush performances from great actors (Lil Rill Howery, Chloë Sevigny, Adrien Brody, Judith Light, Hong Chau, Noah Segan, and others), and excellent use of music. I never thought I’d hear Donald Fagen’s “Walk Between the Raindrops” in a murder mystery.

That specific fact might not sound like enough to make you subscribe to Peacock, but there’s so much smart and fun in this show that it’s a lot to watch until you feel like the show was made just for you. Will not search further. Like “Colombo,” I expect it to last for decades.

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