Drugs, murder and Natasha Lyonne: how 2023’s most wildly entertaining TV is all about female private eyes

<span>Photograph: Peacock/Evans Vestal Ward</span>
Photograph: Peacock/Evans Vestal Ward

You wait years for a pulpy TV series about a female sort-of private investigator who drives a classic car around the more sun-bleached parts of the United States, then Natasha Lyonne and Patricia Arquette put on their statement sunglasses in the very same year. Poker Face and High Desert have emerged as two of the more original series to debut in 2023, and both share a similarly noir-ish spirit – though their protagonists run with that in very different directions.

High Desert is the messier of the two mysteries. Arquette plays Peggy Newman, a formerly successful drug dealer whose business empire was busted by the FBI a decade ago. She is now a recovering addict working at a wild west theme park in Yucca Valley, California. Despite the freewheeling chaos that dogs her life, Peggy is “the asshole whisperer”, with a nose for detail and a keen eye for a con artist. Through a series of unlikely events, including a breast enhancement operation, workplace theft and a hallucinatory conversation with a cactus flower, Peggy ends up on the tail of a man who calls himself “Guru Bob” (Rupert Friend, proving himself to be a standup slapstick artist), who may be even more of a fraud than he first appears to be.

Related: Poker Face review – Natasha Lyonne is more mesmerising than ever in this superfun detective show

Guru Bob, or “that guru bastard”, as Peggy prefers to call him, is a former news anchor who turned to spiritualism after a Network-style meltdown on air. He has a Picasso on the wall and a long-missing wife, and Peggy is not buying whatever cock and bull story he is selling. She talks her way into a job as the assistant to a private investigator, and uses his resources to start tackling the big mystery behind Bob and his art collection. But there are also family dramas to contend with, including the death of her mother, her frosty sister and her imprisoned ex-husband (Matt Dillon). She tries to deal with her issues by writing a script for an actor who looks identical to her dead mother (both are played by Bernadette Peters). There’s a lot going on, and it pinballs around various moods and tones, but there is a pleasing surrealism at its heart, and for all of its hazy sloppiness it’s also a lot of fun.

Fun is at the heart of Poker Face, too, which has a much more robust approach to cracking heads and cases. Lyonne is Charlie Cale, who starts the series as a waitress in a budget Las Vegas casino, owing to past dealings and trade-offs that don’t quite become clear until the end of the opening episode. It finds its own surreal streak in Charlie’s innate ability to tell when someone is lying – she is, as her targets have it, a “human lie detector”, who coughs “bullshit” whenever she hears a fib. Somebody put her in the House of Commons on a Wednesday lunchtime …

Where Peggy journeys around Yucca Valley trying to pull together the many rapidly unravelling threads in her life, Charlie has to flee one big bad enemy, leaving Las Vegas and setting off on an enforced road trip that sees her meeting a different murder case in each of the small towns she encounters. The comparisons with Columbo have been plentiful and apt, but its case-of-the-week set-up reminded me of Quantum Leap, too. Either way, it has the feel of a TV classic to it already.

Created by Knives Out’s Rian Johnson, it delights in showing us the puzzle pieces of a murder, usually pointing out who did it at the very start, before dropping Charlie into the action and letting us watch as she figures out what happened, when, where and why, using her bullshit-monitor to guide her. For a show that’s largely concerned with tragic premature deaths brought about by the pettiest of circumstances for the most ridiculous of reasons, it is very silly, often very funny, and thunders along the road with a strong sense of delight and wonder.

Lyonne gives it the full Lyonne treatment: for anyone who has seen her in anything since her Orange is the New Black comeback, you’ll know exactly what to expect – and there are showgirls, a Nomadland-style trucker in a cowboy hat, a fascist dog, a washed-up metal band and a barbecue-themed corruption story featuring its very own Lady Macbeef. I can’t think of a television show this year that has felt so pure in its mission to entertain – it’s a blast from start to finish.

Both of these shows take a mystery, or multiple mysteries, turn them over in their hands and examine them from a strange new angle. They are capers with a 70s look and a dose of contemporary small-town atmosphere, whether that’s in the bureaucracy of rehab or the boredom of working at an all-night sandwich shop on a quiet stretch of road. High Desert is a more peculiar beast, the ratty stoner cousin to Poker Face’s muscular, handsome oddball, but if there has to be a glut of one type of show, I’ll happily take surreal murder mysteries with very nice cars in them, any day of the week.

• Poker Face is on Sky Max and Now; High Desert is on Apple TV+