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SYFY WIRE Poker Face

Rian Johnson: Each episode of Peacock’s ‘Poker Face’ mystery series is like ‘a movie’ all to itself

This definitely sounds like a winning hand.

By Benjamin Bullard
Natasha Lyonne in POKER FACE

Cinematic spectacles are where Rian Johnson’s work mostly lives. But whether on the big screen or small, The Last Jedi and Looper director is no stranger to stripping away the special effects and getting absorbed in a good, old fashioned yarn that’s all story. In addition to helming a handful of the most engrossing Breaking Bad episodes ever (well, and that one weird Season 3 episode about the “Fly"), Johnson’s written and directed both of the films in the unfolding Knives Out story-verse...and those are nothing if not driven by beat-by-beat plot points.

Now Johnson’s getting set to reveal what’s easily his deepest dive into television to date: Poker Face, a new Peacock series featuring Russian Doll star Natasha Lyonne that strikes out on separate weekly mysteries, each of which will test the fib-sensing powers of Lyonne’s lead character over the course of 10 hour-long installments. Like Knives Out and its Netflix-bound sequel Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, there’s more than a touch of old-school sleuthing at the heart of the Poker Face formula, thanks to a creative decision that Johnson says will take unique advantage of Peacock’s episodic format.

Lyonne stars in Poker Face as Charlie Cale, an eternally optimistic casino worker with a unique gift for knowing when anyone — even a stranger — happens to be telling a lie. Rather than using that setup to chase a season-spanning, 10-episode whodunnit that juggles an appropriately big ensemble cast (after all, you’ve gotta have lots of suspects in order to have a compelling murder mystery), Poker Face saddles Charlie with a different and fresh mystery every time out.

That, says Johnson, keeps the cast size of each episode manageable, even as it allows the show to spring for bigger acting talent and hand a freer creative hand for each of the directors who’ll be painting their weekly stories on a far more open canvas.

“There’s a lot of reasons I like that format,” Johnson recently explained to Vanity Fair. “The big one is because I really love the idea of getting great guest stars for every episode, as opposed to the whodunit where you have to juggle five or six suspects to make it satisfying. I wanted to be able to create a real meal for actors to come in and feast on if they’re going to be the guest star.”

Drawing comparisons to classic, episodic detective series like Columbo, that self-contained style of storytelling gives the show’s rotating slate of directors (including Janicza Bravo, Lyonne, and Johnson himself) the chance to make each installment their own — in other words, similar to a feature film. “I was looking to pull in directors who I felt like had really strong storytelling and visual sensibilities,” said Johnson, “and kind of let them make a movie.” 

With Lyonne’s character anchoring the series, the guest acting roster for Poker Face will itself bring tons of top-shelf variety to each week’s fresh installment. Joseph Gordon Levitt (a prior Johnson collaborator on Looper) is set to star in one episode, as are a slew of cleverly-curated casting scores in others — including Adrien Brody, Nick Nolte, Chloë Sevigny, Ellen Barkin, Tim Meadows, Jameela Jamil, Charles Melton, Lil Rel Howery, Noah Segan (another longtime Johnson collaborator), and more.

Even if each story stands on its own, though, Johnson teased that fans who stick around ’til the end won’t be disappointed by the way the larger unified picture begins to fill in. “I can promise,” he said, “that the finale comes back to the story of the pilot in a way that I think is very satisfying.”

Better still, he sounds game to keep at it if the series turns out to be a hit for Peacock. “We just had a blast making the show,” he said. “…If we’re allowed to keep going with this, it feels like something that could be endlessly fun to play with.” 

Poker Face debuts at Peacock with a four-episode drop beginning Thursday, Jan. 26, with fresh episodes arriving weekly thereafter.

In the mood for some Natasha Lyonne? Check out Addicted to Fresno and Zig Zag, now streaming on Peacock!