I have a confession.  For a quarter century, I’ve had the hugest crush on Natasha Lyonne.  Ever since I saw her as a rebellious teenager who earned kudos for her earthy performance as a recently relocated teen who downsizes with her dad Alan Arkin into a modest 10-unit apartment complex in the unsung indie comedy SLUMS OF BEVERLY HILLS , the likes I’m all too familiar with since it’s similar to the ones my relatives owned in pre-yuppie Santa Monica when I first moved here, I’ve been fascinanted with her unique combination of looks, voice, resolve and worldliness.

When she rose to further prominence as the de facto sex guru in the series of AMERICAN PIE movies, my fanaticism grew,  And her Emmy-nominated tour de force as Nicky Nichols, the disgraced but clearly traumatized inmate on the first streaming series I actually binged, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, as she effortlessly and passionately moved from female inmate to female inmate gaining trust and respect with every oral sex act she willingly indulged in with practically everyone, let’s just say there was now not a single thing I thought she could ever do wrong.

More recently, she’s became a critical darling for her acclaimed lead in Netflix’s RUSSIAN DOLL, essentially a GROUNDHOG DAY for the New York party scene, and her recently ended relationship with SNL alum and Seth Meyers’ bandleader Fred Armisen made her more of a fixture on New York-based talk and game shows.  And her newest streaming series, POKER FACE, now puts her into a format that I’ve loved even longer than her.

The “howcatchem” format of shows like COLUMBO and MURDER, SHE WROTE have fascinated me since I grew up with those kind of shows ominpresent on my TV.  COLUMBO, in particular, was unparalled storytelling, and Peter Falk’s portrayal as a raspy-voiced, rumpled-raincoat wearing, classic Peugeot-driving gumshoe was endearing and unflailingly successful, in case after case showing up to retrace the steps viewers had already seen and uncover that “just one more thing” that ultimately led to justice.  In later years, the beloved Angela Lansbury portrayed a Maine spinster akin to Agatha Cheistie’s Miss Marple, and Jessica Fletcher was the unquestioned poster child for “binge” viewing among older adults, with nearly 300 hours of crimesolving ubiquitously running on USA and other cable networks for decades. 

Both of these shows happen to be owned by Universal TV, and their Peacock sibling has needed a breakout hit, right now more than ever.  Comcast’s earnings call yesterday bragged about their reaching 20 million U.S. subscribers, but also copped to nearly a $1B loss in 4Q22, and is projecting losses of nearly $3B in 2023.  In their deathmatch battle with rival Paramount+, they have still been looking for a significant original hit, while Paramount has at least broken through with a couple of Taylor Sheridan hours, 1923 and TULSA KING, that per Whip Media is giving that service some actual traction against the more robust (but less financially viable) array of series on Netflix.

That said, Peacock’s been making some headway, having broken through the 1% barrier of share of streaming viewing per Nielsen for the first time in December, buoyed by the addition of Hallmark Media Christmas content, which appeals to much the same demographic and psychographic profile as viewers of “howcatchems” like M,SW.  POKER FACE, which released the first four hours of this quasi-procedural yesterday as a kickoff to what will ultimately be a weekly series, has all the potential to gain similar traction.  As show creator and co-producer Rian Johnson told The Hollywood Reporter:

“I just kept coming back and hammering the notion that all the shows that I grew up watching were not about the cliffhanger at the end,” Johnson told THR about bringing back the “howcatchem” detective show format with Poker Face, and his plans to subvert the binge-watching model that has become the norm in the streaming era. It’s a formula that, when done right, could go on forever. Citing shows of the ’80s and ’90s like Magnum P.I., Murder, She Wrote, The A-Team and Quantum Leap, Johnson says “they were about wanting to come back to hang out with this character that you love and see them win, and that’s equally addictive. And it’s also something I miss, and I bet a lot of people also miss.”

And the dogwhistles to her now-predescesors in the howcatchem world are obvious.  Lyonne drives a beat up Plymouth Barracuda that rivals Columbo’s Peugeot.  In Netflix’s recent GLASS ONION movie, Lyonne made a cameo with Lansbury in what turned out to be one of the latter’s final performances.  With the new wrinkle of an overlay involving Lyonne’s Charlie Cale being on the run, the case-of-the-week format unfolded with style and bingability.  As the Reporter article semi-spoiled:

The 67-minute long premiere served as an origin story for the series, as it sent Charlie, a casino cocktail waitress, on the run from Las Vegas after discovering that her boss (Adrien Brody) and his right-hand man (Benjamin Bratt) killed her best friend (Dascha Polanco) after the latter uncovered something sinister on the laptop of a high roller.

Charlie, as it is revealed, has an uncanny skill for identifying when someone is lying, which is how she solves her friend’s murder. In an act of justice, she puts word out that the casino owned by Sterling Frost (voiced by a threatening Ron Perlman) plays dirty. Instead of facing his father’s wrath, Brody’s character dies by suicide and Sterling Sr. vows to hunt Charlie down to get vengeance.

From there, Poker Face road trips with Charlie, in her Plymouth Barracuda, through three more episodes. Each one brings Charlie to a new location where she has a direct connection to a new murder that she eventually solves, thanks to her unique skill. In “The Night Shift,” she seeks justice for a kind trucker (Hong Chau) who is framed for a murder (by Colton Ryan) in New Mexico. In the Texas-set “The Stall,” she unmasks a local BBQ king (Lil Rey Howery) and his sister-in-law (Danielle MacDonald) for a near-perfect murder of a family member (Larry Brown). And “Rest in Metal” sees Charlie avenging the murder of a drummer (Nick Cirillo) by a has-been rock star (Chloë Sevigny) and her band while on tour.

It all sounds so familiar, but Lyonne’s appeal is refreshing and uncompromising and, frankly, she can rock a casino girl uniform far more flatteringly that Lansbury could have even in her flapper days.  And yet, my libido aside, her Charlie is relatable, vulnerable and shrewd, and I have,little doubt she will gain acceptance with an older audience not necessarily familiar with her previous younger-appeal streaming series.

After some ill-advised attempts to reinvent the wheel with ill-fated de facto reboots of SAVED BY THE BELL and PUNKY BREWSTER, and a polarizing reinvention of the FRESH PRINCE OF BEL AIR, Peacock may finally have finally found a successful way to utilize its IP via inspiration rather than revisiting, and appeal to the audience likely to be attracted to their walled garden with the hundreds of episodes in their library (Universal also owns MAGNUM, QUANTUM LEAP and lots of other procedurals–not to mention the LAW AND ORDER-verse).

I know I’ve found another reason to open my app besides football and soccer.  And coming back on future Thursday nights for me will be an open-and-shut case.

Until next time…

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