There was a time most of the television was like Poker facethe new drama Peacock created by Glass Onionby Rian Johnson and featuring Russian dollIt’s Natasha Lyonne. It is about a purely episodic emission, case of the week. Each episode sets up its own specific story, which Lyonne’s Charlie Cale finds a way to wrap up by the end of the hour. There are extremely loose threads going on, but you can in theory watch every episode but the first in any order and get equal enjoyment out of each one. It’s a show that relies heavily on its star appeal and the ability of Johnson and the other writers and directors to make each individual story so interesting that you’ll want to come back for more without any real hint of To be continued.
For decades, that’s how television worked. And came Thread, breaking Bad, game of thrones, etc., and suddenly the case of the week was outdated – simplistic stuff from a time when we knew TV could be better. Serialization was the new king, and if each episode didn’t somehow contribute to the bigger story, what was the point?
In many ways, television has benefited a lot from this change. The best shows of this century have been able to aim higher, dig deeper, and take incredible advantage of the allotted time offered by telling a story about a set of characters for years. But in other ways, we really lost something. Serialization has become as much a formula as purely episodic storytelling once was. Too many showrunners – whether it’s screenwriters trying to stretch the plot of a movie they couldn’t sell, or just someone who took all the wrong lessons from watching The Sopranosor thought it would be easy to just copy breaking Bad‘s structure – mistakenly assume that an ongoing story is fundamentally interesting simply because it spans an entire season or series. Complexity is seen as rewarding for its own sake, rather than because it adds value to the story being told. So we get this long, amorphous sludge – “It’s a 10 hour movie!” – who forget how to entertain because all they care about is forward momentum.
Thank goodness, then, for Johnson, Lyonne and everyone else involved in making Poker face. It deploys all the best elements from the previous era, but in a way that makes the show completely modern – in the same way that Knives out and Glass Onion are inspired by the mysteries of Agatha Christie without looking like dusty period pieces.
Charlie, we learn, was once an unbeatable poker player thanks to an unusual, essentially superhuman ability: she can always tell when someone is lying. Eventually, she bumped into the wrong people and now works as a waitress at a Nevada casino, just trying to stay out of trouble. But as is the case with these kinds of shows, trouble inevitably continues to find her, always in the form of a murder that only she can solve, because she knows the killer is full of it.
The format is a mix of the classic Colombo open mystery and the approach Johnson took with Benoit Blanc’s films. Each episode opens with 10-15 minutes without Charlie, as we meet the murderers and their victims and see how and why the murder took place. Then the stories rewind to show how Charlie already knew about these characters, before we finally ask him what happened, as well as a way to ensure the bad guys see justice – even if Charlie isn’t. a cop and, in fact, must remain outside the law as the events of the first episode make her a fugitive who must travel anonymously from town to town. (The only ongoing item is that a casino enforcer, played by Benjamin Bratt, is 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 reviewers.)
The settings and types of guest stars vary wildly from episode to episode. In one, she works at a Texas barbecue run by Lil Rel Howery; in another, she’s a roadie for a one-hit heavy metal band where Chloë Sevigny is the aging singer desperate for a comeback.
Even if there was already a bit of Peter Falk’s Lieutenant Columbo in Lyonne Russian doll performance, Charlie is a very different character: friendly and curious about people and the world around him. It’s an utterly magnetic and winning performance, where she’s just as good at herself — say, tasting different types of wood to identify one of Lil Rel’s lies — as she is interacting with terrific guest stars. like Hong Chau (as a long-haul social anti-trucker) or Ellen Barkin (as an 80s TV star now performing in a dinner theater).
And like the Blanc movies, it’s a show that uses every part of the buffalo. No matter how disposable a scene seems – say, Charlie having a funny encounter with a stranger in a dumpster – it will eventually have some plot significance. The whole thing is damn smart – including the many ways he manages to demonstrate the limits of being a human lie detector – and light on his feet.
That said, because shows like Poker face have become so rare – or, at least, those like this that are so well executed – there is a risk of overstating it. Like any episodic drama, some episodes are stronger than others, especially in the opening sequences without Lyonne. The fifth episode, for example, introduces Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson as former ’70s revolutionaries who are now the two toughest and meanest in their retirement community; the combination of that premise and those great veteran actors is so strong that I almost forgot I was expecting Charlie. But the second episode, involving a trio of people working night shifts in stores next to a truck stop, only really takes off once that familiar mop of strawberry blonde hair shows up. And even when she does show up, the flashback segments can sometimes make you eager to get to the part where Charlie starts to poke holes in the killer’s story. (Colombo episodes tended to be between 70 and 100 minutes long, and thus had more than enough time for Falk and guest stars to interact; after a 67-minute first episode which is to establish Charlie’s backstory and premise, all others are an hour or less, sometimes much less.)
But damn, what a relief and what a treat to see a TV show that actually wants to be a TV show, and knows how to do it at such a high level. Johnson and Lyonne said they would like to do Poker face as long as they can. Hopefully they will have a chance. This one is wonderful.
The first four episodes of Poker face begin streaming January 26 on Peacock, with additional episodes released weekly. I saw the first six of 10 episodes.