All hail Natasha Lyonne, an actor expert at comedy and drama who blends them both to sublime perfection in "Poker Face," a 10-part series now on Peacock that raises the bar on murder-of-the-week TV by making sure all hands on deck are at a their very best.
Which brings us to Rian Johnson, the writer-director who's been making waves of mayhem and mischief with "Knives Out" and "Glass Onion" and imbues those same qualities into each self-contained, one-hour episode as the creator of "Poker Face." It helps that Lyonne is every bit the animating force of nature that Daniel Craig is to Johnson's "Knives Out" mysteries.
Lyonne, whose sexy, throaty voice is a gift to every line she utters, is introduced as Charlie Cale, a Vegas cocktail waitress with the ability -- some might call it a superpower -- to tell when someone is lying. Or bluffing, which comes in handy in a poker game.
Using her talent gets Charlie barred in every casino. Which is why she's slinging drinks instead of cards at a Vegas hotel run by Sterling Frost Jr. (Oscar winner Adrien Brody), whose dad owns the place and likes to keep Charlie where he can see and control her. Or so he thinks.
Charlie does as she's told, including participating in a sting on a high roller utilizing her lie-detecting skills. But when her boss and his fixer, Cliff Legrand (Benjamin Bratt oozing menace), conspire to kill Charlie's housekeeper bestie Natalie (Dascha Polanco), all bets are off.
For betraying the house, Charlie is forced to go on the run from Cliff, on Big Daddy's orders to snuff her out. And that's the series with Charlie hiding out in a new town in each episode with fresh homicides to distract her while avoiding Cliff who stays hot on her trail.
Each episode begins with a murder and then doubles back so Charlie arrives before it. Taking its premise from classic TV crime dramas such as "Columbo" and "Murder, She Wrote," "Poker Face" ups the energy by plugging live wire Lyonne, who makes her amateur detective a streetwise, seen-it-all firecracker who never loses compassion for her fellow humans.
And that makes all the difference. Charlie is a character we root for, a dynamo who refuses to be beaten down by circumstances. In each episode she mixes it up with A-level guest stars.
There's Chloe Sevigny as a washed-up rock star who'd kill for a hit, Lil Rel Howery as a barbecue king who turns lethal when his brother goes vegan, "The Whale" Oscar nominee Hong Chau as a trucker, and Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson as '70s radicals disguising their Weather Underground past in an assisted-living community.
The scripts are clever, often diabolically so. But it's Lyonne who keeps us coming back for more. Whether you saw her in the "American Pie" franchise or her Emmy-nominated work in "Orange Is the New Black" and "Russian Doll," Lyonne has found the role of her career in Charlie.
A quick glance at Lyonne's bio reveals a girl from an Orthodox Jewish family who at 6 became a Ford model and a cast member on "Pee-wee's Playhouse." Expelled from school for from selling weed, she became estranged from her parents. She began the new century being arrested on a DUI, entering treatment for heroin addiction and undergoing open-heart surgery.
Lyonne, 43, has led a life. But her goal is artistic creation, not self exploitation. Though she wrote and directed episode 8 of "Poker Face," costarring Nick Nolte, Lyonne is not Charlie. She's her own woman. And the sizzle she brings to her acting is uniquely satisfying.
Lyonne is what makes this weekly joyride -- more whodunit than whodunit -- such an exhilarating gift. "Poker Face" is pure pleasure, one of the best of the 2023 TV season. You can't watch it with a poker face because you'll be having too much fun.