written by Inkoo Kang, The New Yorker
TV sleuths tend to come tortured ("True Detective") or brilliant bordering on clairvoyant ("Sherlock"). On Natasha Lyonne's series "Russian Doll," her character was closer to the former: a woman laden with familial tragedy trying to suss out why she keeps dying and then being resurrected on her thirty-sixth birthday. On her new show, "Poker Face" (Peacock), a murder-of-the-week series created by the film director Rian Johnson, she plays a human lie detector: her Spidey sense goes off when someone's not telling the truth. This premise is so silly that a different development process might have taken the project to CBS. But Lyonne's smirkingly wise presence, combined with Johnson's fanciful yet humanistic approach to the mystery genre (most recently seen in "Knives Out" and its sequel, "Glass Onion"), renders their "Columbo" homage a hangout procedural. Each homicide is an excuse to spend some time with Lyonne's character, Charlie, a croakily sardonic, authority-allergic roamer who's less a detective than a righteous snoop.
It’s noteworthy that an actor and a director with two of the most distinct sensibilities in Hollywood have come together to make the kind of syndication-friendly programming that you might have lost an afternoon to anytime in the past fifty years. [That timeless quality is reflected not just in the series’ well-worn format but in the pilot’s temporally fluid aesthetic ("Poker Face" is shot by Steve Yedlin, ASC
& Jaron Presant, ASC
) which mixes mid-century kitsch, seventies-era scuzz, and modern-day alienation.] "Poker Face” is meant to be as comfortingly familiar as “Russian Doll” was novel and challenging. But the show still conjures as much charisma and surprise as it can inside its rather thoughtful formula. Each episode begins with a killing, then jumps around in time to reveal Charlie’s connection to the crime—she tends to get close to people who end up dead—and her efforts to bring the perpetrator to justice.
Whenever the victims reappear onscreen, in flashbacks—a hotel maid (Dascha Polanco) who tells herself she can’t leave her controlling husband; a Texas pitmaster (Larry Brown) who grapples with an epiphany about animal suffering—a warmth suffuses the story lines. A slew of famous faces in the first six episodes (most memorably Adrien Brody, Lil Rel Howery, Ellen Barkin, Judith Light, Chloë Sevigny, and the remarkably versatile Hong Chau) enliven the occasionally fussy scripts. A sense of generosity pervades the production, especially in the decision for Lyonne not to appear until about a third of the way into many of the chapters. It feels like the star giving her fellow character actors the chance to be the Natasha Lyonne of their respective episodes.
Initially, Charlie doesn’t see much of a point to her powers. She compares lies to the sound of birds chirping: “It’s fucking everywhere all the time.” A poker player forced into retirement after too many wins—no one will seat her anymore—she now waitresses at a seedy Nevada casino. Charlie’s indoor cigarettes and desert-dry hay hair make even her work uniform, a tall feathered cap and a corseted minidress, look sarcastic. At home, she’s in aviators and trucker hats, yelling at randos on Twitter.
The first person to see potential in Charlie’s unusual talent is her new boss, Sterling (Brody), the failson of the casino’s scary founder. Sterling wants to punish a wayward client by pitting Charlie against him at the poker table, but she soon deduces some more alarming incidents at the casino that Sterling’s trying to cover up. By the end of the episode, a wounded Charlie is forced on the lam, fleeing the vengeful wrath of Sterling’s father.
But the season is slow to serialize; it wants adventure in detours. A lonesome, justifiably paranoid trucker spouting road wisdom, played by Chau, is an early treat. Light and S. Epatha Merkerson sizzle and hiss as a pair of rebellious broads at a nursing home where Charlie briefly finds work; each new twist in their backstories exposes a darker layer to their cackling defiance. But it’s the fourth installment that best showcases the series’ gleaming black comedy. An aging heavy-metal front woman named Ruby Ruin (Sevigny, looking deliciously mean with bleached eyebrows) goes back on tour with her band and tries to write a follow-up to their one hit, a song that all of them have grown to resent. They bring along a much younger drummer (Nicholas Cirillo), whom they first treat like dirt, and then even less than that. Despite murder being a necessary conceit, “Poker Face” is a largely sun-soaked show. But, every so often, the series channels the rage that drives people to snuff out the threats that jostle too close.
If “Poker Face” knows when to add a dash of vinegar to balance out Lyonne’s raspy sweetness, then the comic docuseries “Paul T. Goldman” offers up an experimental plate of astringent saccharin. The show’s convoluted, fourth-wall-breaking premise is as follows: Paul, a self-described schlemiel in his early sixties, tells the story of his second marriage—to a fraudster named Audrey—and the delirious discoveries that he makes about her after their divorce, which he has turned into a self-published book and a screenplay. The director of the series, Jason Woliner, allows Paul to act out the more dramatic scenes from his script alongside recognizable actors like Melinda McGraw, who plays Audrey, and Dennis Haysbert, in the role of an F.B.I. agent. The first episode frames the tale as true crime. Woliner, who occasionally appears onscreen, indulges Paul’s B-movie imagination and transparent self-aggrandizement, but understands that his protagonist is an unreliable narrator at best—even before the “revelations” of Audrey’s links to sex work and her ostensible pimp’s involvement in an international trafficking ring.
“Holy shit! I married a hooker?!” Paul says, acting out the dialogue he’s written. For all its faults, the series is an astute portrait of a man who has mastered the art of concealing his misogyny behind a bumbling benignity. When Paul recalls how he met his first wife, he tells a sad-sack tale of turning forty alone and wanting to start a family—a desire that takes him to Russia to pursue a mail-order bride who is twenty-seven and “model-quality gorgeous.” (He does not mention why a catalogue for mail-order brides was sent to his house in the first place.) Paul ends up marrying a different Russian woman and having a son with her. After the couple part ways, the boy’s well-being becomes Paul’s stated rationale for wanting to marry again. He meets Audrey on a dating site and proposes after three months.
For most of the series’ six-part run, the question fuelling the narrative is “What exactly are we watching?” Is Paul a cursed narcissist coping with his loneliness by retreating into harmless fantasy, or a delusional creep whose extensive lies and disturbing patterns of harassment, even abuse, will be exposed? But Paul’s undependability is soon matched by Woliner’s. It’s hard not to have qualms about the director setting up his protagonist to receive so much undeserved attention and sympathy, particularly as Paul’s ugliness toward women comes into sharper focus. Strikingly, Paul also reminisces about a time he got fleeced so badly by a male employee that he was forced to shutter his business, but he never seeks redress from the malfeasant. Or maybe none of it ever happened.
Woliner, who’s been working on some version of “Paul T. Goldman” for more than a decade, too often glosses over the grimmer implications of Paul’s actions, such as the revenge porn he sends to Audrey’s parents, whose woeful demise is turned into yet another sordid shock. It’s particularly jarring to contrast the series with Woliner’s best-known film, the “Borat” sequel, which aims some of its most serrated gags at the complicity of bystanders who witness the titular character’s attempts to sell his teen-age daughter. Here, Woliner seems more concerned with giving Paul the opportunity to parse the difference between trafficking women and ordering a wife from a catalogue.
Paul, it turns out, is not only a chauvinist but a fairly run-of-the-mill one, and Woliner’s anxiety about setting up such an ordinary (if unpleasant) loser for nationwide ridicule may be why he gives his subject the last word, even after disputing most of his claims. The director perhaps should have worried more that, by giving Paul a platform, he is enabling the man to spread lies about his ex-wife, who doesn’t participate in the docuseries, to a larger audience. By the end, there’s no reason to trust Woliner any more than his subject.