Poker Face is not the sort of show to spoil, but a warning nonetheless.
I always think there’s been a divide between production line TV and its prestige brethren, but the internet has helped to delineate its boundaries. NCIS was the most watched drama series in the US as of 2009, but you don’t see that The Ringers giving an explanation of the length of an essay to each episode. Today, prestige drama in the form of peak TV is studied and chewed by the internet sausage machine. Everything else is considered disposable, despite the obvious and continued success of the things that most people are actually look on broadcast networks. There’s a lot of snobbery there, but I also suspect the The rookie audiences aren’t too concerned about reading a 2,000-word breakdown by a Yale grad with little work on the Nathan Fillion fights crime action.
Poker face, then is an attempt by what I’ll only somewhat sarcastically call “prestige TV folks” to make production line TV. Like when a stuffy chef wants to polish up his “down with the kids” credentials by making the kind of dirty burger you can’t appreciate until 3am. Interestingly enough, despite the fact that the co-creator and star are both poster children for Netflix’s revolution, the show is set up in Peacock. Created by Rian Johnson, fresh from the success of Glass onion: a Benoit Blanc mysteryand Russian dolls Natasha Lyonne, Poker face is an unashamed tribute to a lost TV era. Or, you know, lost if you don’t pay attention to what CBS shows on Thursday and Sunday nights.
Lyonne stars as Charlie Cale, a woman with a troubled past who has developed the amazing ability to tell when someone is lying. After trying to use her get-rich-quick talent on a lazy poker tour across the US, she is caught by a Reno casino tycoon. He offers her a job as a hostess in exchange for not killing her to death, making her promise not to use her talent again. When he retires and his grabby son takes over, he chooses to use her talent rather than keep it hidden, leaving them both embroiled in a murder mystery. Which eventually leads to her taking a road trip in her Plymouth Barracuda and solving murders everywhere she goes.
And, sure, the show leaned into the idea that Poker face probably comes closest to being a millennial Columbo redo. Sure, the creative team hasn’t been shy about drawing the parallels between the 1970s classic (and, uh, 80/90s less classic) and this one. It uses the same Inverted Detective Story structure, with the main character absent from the first act as we see how the murder was committed and the attempts to build a watertight alibi. Not to mention the choice to title the show with bold yellow text, complete with copyright date below the title card, and the overall ethos. You have a streetwise, gritty New Yorker with a knack for solving crimes and a classic car. And, as in his inspiration, Lyonne is up against a series of A- and B-list guest stars, as the most famous guest star (or stars) is the one who did the murder.
The differences since then are largely due to the packaging Columbo was conceived as a series of movies-of-the-month. (Columbo was originally 90 minutes long, but many episodes were “supersized” to a full two hours, very often to their detriment.) Poker face is set up as an “episodic” case-of-the-week show, with the running time of streaming meaning some episodes run between 80 minutes and just 50 minutes, when the plot is thin enough to warrant the trim. That’s good, because it rarely feels like an episode is longer than welcome, and they often skip over a light-hearted old clip.
But this efficiency also robs us of one of the highlights that made classic Columbo as it often can be. It was always a delight to watch a short, scruffy working class cop take on higher status opposition. And the show would build up these confrontations and divide them along the way to the final denouement. Star Peter Falk was a great, albeit difficult, actor, often competing against one of his real life friends, each a superstar. And they loaded each confrontation with depth, nuance, and suspense as Lieutenant Columbo sliced apart their “watertight” alibi with a razor blade. Watching Falk against John Cassavetes, Patrick McGoohan, Robert Culp or the great Jack Cassidy was thrilling television. And all this is put aside as Charlie is apparently a human lie detector who knows when the guest star is lying in her presence. (This is usually rather unsubtlely demonstrated by Charlie reflexively coughing a mischievous word describing manly cow dung that we are no longer allowed to write here.)
Instead, the recurring twist (if it can be called that) is that Charlie was actually present or somehow involved in the pre-murder situation. So while Lyonne is absent for the show’s first act, you then see a condensed version of those same events showing how Charlie was seduced by the events (and has an emotional interest in solving the crime). In a way, you start to wonder how exactly we’re going to see Charlie popping up and what scenes we’ve just seen lurking on the periphery of. It’s an elegant way of connecting the character and the murder without her turning into a shabby cop in a beige trench coat.
But you don’t have to Columbo fan to enjoy Poker faceand the ultimate litmus test was my aggressive-Columbo-indifferent woman watches the screeners with me. She said the show was fun, and it gives you “the joy of seeing how Charlie was there all along”. And that, like one of her favorite detective shows, Jonathan Creek, you can play along at home, searching for the clues that will eventually lead Charlie to solving the case. (The show also plays fair and gives you the chance to see a clue that our hero won’t clock in for another few minutes.)
The advantage of the episodic nature of the series is that you can dive in and out as you see fit. I watched the six (out of ten) episodes Peacock made available for review, in dribs and drabs, one, then a day off, and the next, in a way that resembled how it was meant to be seen. The only problem for would-be dippers is that you might not quite understand why, at the end of half the episodes, a character I won’t name shows up to watch Lyonne. This is something the show borrowed from older shows, where our hero was always on the move to stay out of the clutches of the overarching villain and keep the story going. But you’d be crazy not to at least watch the pilot episode, which was written and directed by Johnson. (The second episode, where he directs on his own, sags a bit as it chooses to repeat his premise for anyone who decided to watch TV as a psychopath and not just start at the beginning.)
Tonal, Poker face is light-hearted, despite its gritty world, and there’s often one great joke in every episode. As much as some episodes may draw from a darker palette, none are described even close to “heavy.” It’s not afraid to be a little silly either, but I’d spoil the fun by explaining how or why it is, so you’ll have to find out for yourself. In fact, most of the fun of the show is just in the watching, so I can’t imagine anyone racing to write 2,000-word breakdowns of how each episode unfolded. Just repeat to yourself: it’s just a show, I should really just relax.
Poker face debuts on Peacock on January 26, 2023, with the first four episodes streaming at launch. A new episode will be released every following Thursday for the next six weeks.
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