The week in TV: Poker Face; Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland; Maryland; Platonic – review

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

Poker Face (Sky Max/Now)
Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland (BBC Two) | iPlayer
Maryland (ITV) | ITVX
Platonic Apple TV+

After so many gruelling thrillers, does the television palate instinctively yearn for a revitalising cleanser – something a bit unexpected to lighten the mood?

Enter Poker Face, the new 10-part US comedy mystery series on Sky Max (a hit for Peacock in the US), created by Rian Johnson, who was responsible for Knives Out and its sequel, Glass Onion. Personally, I wasn’t blown away by Glass Onion (once you got past Daniel Craig’s deep-fried, “gargling drumsticks”, Colonel Sanders accent, that was one rickety plot). Poker Face is a nimbler enterprise altogether, shaking back to life the episodic mystery-of-the-week format.

Basically, it’s a revamp of Columbo sans the crumpled mac, starring Natasha Lyonne from Russian Doll. Each episode opens with a murder, then, with the viewer already knowing who’s guilty, it’s solved by unofficial sleuth Charlie (Lyonne), a woman with an innate knack for spotting if people are lying (“Bullshit!”). In the opener, poker ace Charlie is working as a waitress at a sleazy casino run by venal boss (Adrien Brody) when her friend is killed. Forced to go on the run, she embarks on a road-movie drive through the dust of smalltown America, exposing unlikely killers.

Poker Face plays out like a compendium of offbeat American fables, dealing with everything from a barbecue chef going vegan, to rock losers seizing their chance, to wily hippy seniors. It’s bolstered by high-grade guest stars (Chloë Sevigny as a rock star has-been; Ellen Barkin as a cut-price Norma Desmond; and Colton Ryan as a dead-eyed garage attendant). But Lyonne, all Bon Jovi mop and buzzsaw-rasp, does the heavy lifting, positioning herself in each scenario with her signature roguish swagger.

There’s a reason why such mysteries fell out of vogue: as the series goes on (it’s all streamable), the formula starts to chafe, and some of Charlie’s denouements are so ludicrously basic, never mind Lt Columbo, Scooby-Doo himself would blush. Still, in its lane (a droll, self-aware game of TV Cluedo in which the viewer gets to peek at the cards) and turbopowered by the human electrical storm that is La Lyonne, Poker Face works a treat.

Platonic could be summed up thus: When Harry Met Sally 2:0: When They Just Stay Friends. The End

It’s quite a feat to leave the viewer feeling simultaneously galvanised, reflective and wrung out, but the new five-part James Bluemel docuseries Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland (BBC Two) manages it. Using similar techniques to those employed in his celebrated 2020 series Once Upon a Time in Iraq, Bluemel films ordinary people giving eyewitness accounts of the decades-long conflict known as the Troubles.

Aided by footage, the story unfolds chronologically in “chapters” in a carefully neutral room: one chair, cameras, the occasional jolt of Bluemel’s disembodied voice. The result is a grim, constantly stirring stew of discord, sectarianism, power, politics and control. All sides and viewpoints are represented and carefully calibrated: Catholics. Protestants. Republicans. Loyalists. British army occupancy. The Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). The Ulster Defence Association (UDA). Poverty, intimidation, terror and misery. Bombs, shootings, thousands of lives lost and childhoods played out against the backdrop of barbed wire and rubble.

Over the series, those interviewed slowly reveal themselves through their recollections, as if walking out of thick fog: IRA and UDA members, British soldiers, witnesses to such atrocities as Bloody Sunday, the still-broken and bereaved. The third instalment, dealing with the Maze prison’s “dirty protests” (excrement smeared on walls) and fatal hunger strikes, as IRA inmates fought for political prisoner status, is a particularly harrowing watch.

As the series moves on to the ceasefire and 1998’s Good Friday agreement, it’s chilling to think that the likes of Boris Johnson, stuck on “Get Brexit done” autopilot, could have considered putting such hard-won peace at risk. If the story feels a little rushed at this end point, it’s a minor quibble. Overall, Bluemel has delivered another stark masterclass in history, memory and emotion.

On ITV, the drama Maryland, running over three consecutive nights, initially teases as a thriller. Created by Suranne Jones (Gentleman Jack) and writer Anne-Marie O’Connor, its opening scenes crackle with suspense: an older married woman is found dead on an Isle of Man beach when her husband thinks she’s on a trip to Wales. Her daughters, Becca (Jones) and Rosaline (Eve Best from House of the Dragon), discover she’s been leading a double life. There’s a house, a lover (Hugh Quarshie) and a friend (Stockard Channing), who’s seen scrabbling about with a batch of cannabis.

Usually, all this would activate an inner countdown (surely the revelation of an international drug ring before the first commercial break), but Maryland turns out to be much more complicated and surprising. Without dishing too many spoilers, there’s a general theme of emotional hunger, pertaining to the mother (her shadow life), but also the estranged daughters – careerist Rosaline and overwhelmed wife and mother Becca.

At times, Maryland goes a bit too heavy with the “restrained anguish” on stony beaches and blustery hillocks; it’s much livelier when Becca and Rosaline get spicy with the sisterly spats. That said, it’s well performed (Jones and Best share the acting laurels) and feels almost radical in the way it conducts its non-sensationalist postmortem of hidden family dynamics.

Platonic (Apple TV+), created by Nick Stoller and Francesca Delbanco, reunites Bad Neighbours co-stars Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne in a 10-part dramedy about male/female friendship. Following a five-year froideur after Sylvia (Byrne) criticised who Will (Rogen) chose to marry, they reconnect when he divorces.

The Nora Ephron-themed elephant in the room is swiftly referenced (“You can only be friends with a woman if she’s not hot. Double fact.”). Platonic then concentrates on their odd-couple friendship. Hipster beer brewer Will is increasingly cynical. Though happily married with children, former lawyer Sylvia feels stuck. Together, they navigate life in Los Angeles, involving everything from lizards to strip clubs to young girlfriends (“Stop saying she’s cute and sweet. She’s not a troll doll.”)

Platonic could be summed up thus: When Harry Met Sally 2:0: When They Just Stay Friends. The End. The banter occasionally verges on crude, and other characters (such as Luke Macfarlane as Sylvia’s husband) are a mite underwritten. Still, even in lulls the comic snap of Rogen and Byrne’s chemistry is enough to keep the cylinders firing.

Star ratings (out of five)
Poker Face
Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland ★★★★★
Maryland ★★★
Platonic ★★★

What else I’m watching

Storyville: Inside Kabul
(BBC Four)
A 30-minute animation inspired by voice notes between two Afghan women after the Taliban’s 2021 return to power. With one woman in Kabul and the other in a refugee camp, the combination of animation and real-life voices is evocative and moving.

(BBC Four)
Norwegian drama starring Nina Ellen Ødegård as an individualistic nurse who is diagnosed with cancer when she turns 40, but who’s determined to keep life roaring on. Contemplative and bittersweet.

“Awkward” comedy about a Jewish journalist from Gary Sinyor (Leon the Pig Farmer). Featuring everything from thwarted love to delivering reports on Nazi graffiti (“I’ll do it if I can use the word ‘daubed’”), there are strong whiffs here of Curb Your Enthusiasm.