There was once time was most of the television Poker facethe new Peacock drama made by Glass onion‘s Rian Johnson and starring Russian dollby Natasha Lyonne. It’s a purely episodic, case-of-the-week show. Each episode has its own distinct story, which Lyonne’s Charlie Cale finds a way to wrap up towards the end of the hour. There are some extremely loose ongoing threads, but you could theoretically watch every episode except the first one in any order and have the same fun. It’s a show that relies heavily on its star’s appeal, and Johnson’s and the other writers’ and directors’ ability to make every single story so interesting that you’ll want to come back for more without any real hint of it. To be continued.
This has been how TV worked for decades. Then came along The wire, Break bad, Game of Thrones, etc., and suddenly the case of the week was passé – simplistic stuff from a time before we knew TV could be better. Serialization was the new king, and if each episode didn’t contribute in some way to a larger story, what good was it?
In many ways, television has gained a lot from this shift. The best shows of this century have been able to aim higher, dig deeper, and take incredible advantage of the sheer amount of time afforded by years of telling one story across one set of characters. But in other ways, we’ve really lost something. Serialization has become as formulaic as purely episodic stories used to be. Too many showrunners – whether it’s screenwriters trying to stretch the plot of a movie they couldn’t sell, or just someone who’s learned all the wrong lessons from watching The sopranosor thought it would be easy to just copy Break badThe structure of the movie – wrongly assuming that an ongoing story is fundamentally interesting just because it lasts an entire season or series. Complexity is treated as a reward in itself, rather than because it adds any value to the story being told. So we get these long, amorphous sludges – “It’s a 10 hour movie!” – who forget how to entertain because all they care about is forward momentum.
So thank goodness for Johnson, Lyonne and everyone else involved in making it Poker face. It uses the best elements of the past, but in a way that makes the show feel completely modern – the same way that Knives out and Glass onion are inspired by Agatha Christie mysteries without feeling like dusty historical pieces.
We learn that Charlie was once an unbeatable poker player thanks to an unusual, essentially superhuman ability: she can always tell when someone is lying. Eventually, she hooked up with the wrong people and now works as a cocktail waitress at a casino in Nevada, just to stay out of trouble. But as is the case with shows like this, trouble continues to find her inevitable, always in the form of a murder that only she can solve, because she knows the killer is full of them.
The format is a mix of the classic Columbo open mystery and the approach Johnson has taken with the Benoit Blanc films. Each episode starts with 10-15 minutes without Charlie as we meet the killers and their victims and see how and why the murder happened. Then the stories rewind to show how Charlie already knew these characters, before we finally get to her to find out what happened, as well as a way to show the bad guys justice – even though Charlie isn’t a cop and, in fact, has to stay away from the law because the events of the first episode make her a fugitive who has to travel anonymously from city to city. (The only ongoing element is a casino enforcer, played by Benjamin Bratt, chasing her across the country due to the events of the pilot, but even that is relatively minor and infrequent in the episodes given to critics.)
The settings and types of guest stars vary wildly from episode to episode. In one, she has a job at a barbecue in Texas run by Lil Rel Howery; in another, she’s a roadie for a one-hit wonder heavy metal band where Chloë Sevigny is the aging frontwoman desperate for a comeback.
Although there was already a bit of Peter Falk’s Lieutenant Columbo in Lyonne’s Russian doll performance, Charlie is a completely different kind of character: friendly and curious about the people and the world around her. It’s an utterly magnetic and winning performance, in which she’s just as good on her own — tasting different woods, say, to identify one of Lil Rel’s lies — as she interacts with amazing guest stars like Hong Chau (as an anti- social long-haul trucker) or Ellen Barkin (as an 1980s TV star who now performs in a dinner theater).
And like the Blanc films, this is a show that uses every part of the buffalo. No matter how disposable a scene may seem – say, Charlie having a funny encounter with a stranger at a dumpster – it will eventually prove to have some meaning to the plot. The whole thing is damn clever – including the many ways it manages to demonstrate the limits of being a human lie detector – and light on its feet.
That said, because shows like it Poker face have become so rare – or at least similar ones that are also so well executed – there is a risk that it will be vastly overrated. Like any episodic drama, some episodes are stronger than others, especially in the Lyonne free opening scenes. For example, in the fifth episode, we see Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson as former 1970s revolutionaries who are now the two toughest, baddest girls in their retirement community; the combination of that premise and these wonderful experienced actors is so strong that I almost forgot I was waiting for Charlie. But the second episode, in which three people work the night shift in shops next to a truck stop, only really gets going when that famous bush of strawberry blond hair comes into view. And even when she shows up, the flashback segments can occasionally leave you impatient to get to the part where Charlie starts poking holes in the killer’s story. (Columbo episodes usually ran between 70 and 100 minutes, thus having more than enough time for Falk and the guest stars to interact; after a 67-minute debut episode that establishes Charlie’s backstory and premise, all the others are an hour or less, sometimes considerably less.)
But damn, what a relief and delight it is to see a TV show that actually wants to be a TV show, and knows how to do it at this high level. Johnson and Lyonne have said they would like to make Poker face for as long as they can. Let’s hope they get a chance. This one is great.
The first four episodes of Poker face start streaming January 26 on Peacock, with extra episodes added weekly. I’ve seen the first six of the 10 episodes.