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Poker Face creators desperately wanted a hero to call bullshit, so they invented one

Watching Natasha Lyonne say ‘bullshit’ for those who can’t never gets old

Natasha Lyonne as Charlie Cole walks towards the camera in a brown trucker hat and big matching shades with a brown leather jacket thrown over her shoulder in Peacock’s Poker Face. Photo: Evans Vestal Ward/Peacock
Joshua Rivera (he/him) is an entertainment and culture journalist specializing in film, TV, and video game criticism, the latest stop in a decade-plus career as a critic.

As far as catchphrases go, “bullshit” is a pretty good one. Maybe it’s not original, but damn if it isn’t satisfying. Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne), the protagonist of Poker Face, Rian Johnson’s throwback murder mystery show gets to say it several times an episode thanks to her unique gift: a preternatural ability to tell if people are lying to her. It’s one of the things that makes the Peacock series so compelling to watch — there’s a catharsis to calling bullshit, and every episode is built around the moment when Charlie does.

According to sister showrunners Nora and Lilla Zuckerman, this is by design.

“She thinks that truth matters, and she thinks that helping people matters,” the pair told Polygon in a recent interview. “A lot of us feel that way right now. I think she’s tapping into something very primal in all of us.”

That primal feeling extends to Poker Face’s rotating cast of salt-of-the-earth types that Charlie encounters while on the road. As viewers learn in the Poker Face premiere, which premiered last Thursday, Charlie has run afoul of a casino tycoon and has to stay one step ahead of Cliff (Benjamin Bratt), the hired goon tasked with tracking her down who occasionally catches up with her from time to time. Because of Cliff’s ever-present threat, Charlie lingers on the margins of society, hanging out with and helping folks that live off the beaten path. The Zuckermans have a joke about this, saying that the show “doesn’t take place at The Four Seasons, it takes place at Four Seasons Total Landscaping.”

Charlie’s world is one that, despite its rough exterior, is full of good people who are overlooked and in need of help, and often die as a result of that institutional neglect. An annoying but sweet metalhead, a BBQ pitmaster, a military veteran working behind a Subway counter — all victims killed because someone thought they wouldn’t be missed. Perhaps, even, because the killers felt that way about themselves. It’s not like the cops seem to care; why would some nosy blonde woman change things?

Nora and Lilla Zuckerman say that Charlie’s status as a civilian doesn’t just invite this presumption, but makes for more interesting stories. While Poker Face is a throwback by design, one of the ways it feels fresh is in how Charlie’s crime solving is accidental, and not because she is law enforcement, or a private detective. There really is only so much Charlie can do. She can’t guarantee justice, but who can? Again: she’s working her way through the places the system has ignored.

“Charlie is really limited in what she can do,” the Zuckermans say. “She just has to sort of count on her own ability, her powers of observation, the way that she talks to people, the way that she gets them to sort of show their cards to her — to use a good metaphor for the show.”

In other words, Charlie does the most radical thing someone can do in a cold and indifferent time, something that’s both the best way she can help the good people around her and the worst way she can hurt those who wish to harm them: She notices them. She’s interested. She gives a damn. And she calls bullshit.

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