Immediately a time, most television was like Poker facea new Peacock drama created by Glass onionRian Johnson and actress Russian dollNatasha Lyonne. It is a special events show, of the week. Each episode sets up its own unique story, which Lyon’s Charlie Cale finds a way to conclude at the end of the hour. There are very loose threads going on, but in theory you could watch every episode but the first in any order and get equal enjoyment from each. It’s a show that relies heavily on the appeal of its stars, and on the ability of Johnson and the other writers and directors to make each individual story so compelling that you’ll want to come back for more without any real hint. It will continue.
For decades, this is how TV worked. Then he came Wire, Break badly, Game of the ages, etc., and suddenly the case of the week passed – simple things from the time before knowing TV could be better. Serial execution was the new king, and if each episode didn’t somehow contribute to the larger story, what was the point?
In many ways, television has gained 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 vast amounts of time devoted to telling the same story about the same set of characters over the years. But in another way, we have lost something. The collection has become as much formulaic as the storytelling of events. Too many showrunners – whether it’s screenwriters trying to explain the plot of a movie they couldn’t sell, or someone who took all the wrong lessons by watching. Sopranosor I thought it would be easier to just copy Break badlyStructure of— mistakenly assuming that an ongoing narrative is interesting just because it runs for an entire season, or an entire series. Complexity is considered rewarding for its own sake, rather than because it adds any 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.
Thanks, then, to Johnson, Lyonne, and everyone else involved in making it Poker face. It uses all the best elements of the old times, but in a way that makes the show feel very modern – in the same way that Knives Out and Glass onion they’re inspired by Agatha Christie mysteries without feeling like dusty period pieces.
Charlie, we learn, was once an unbeatable poker player thanks to an unusual, essentially human ability: he can always tell when someone is cheating. Eventually, he met the wrong people, and now works as a cocktail waitress in a Nevada casino, just trying to stay out of trouble. But as with these types of shows, trouble keeps finding him, always in the form of a murder that only he can solve, because he knows the killer is on the loose.
The design is a classic combination Columbus an open secret and the approach Johnson has taken with Benoit Blanc’s films. Each episode opens for 10-15 minutes without Charlie, as we meet the killers and their victims and see how and why the murders happened. Then the stories go back to show how Charlie already knew these characters, before we got to him to understand what happened, and also the way to make the bad guys see justice – even though Charlie is not a cop and, in fact, has to stay away from the law because the events of the first episode they make him a fugitive who is forced to travel anonymously from town to town. (The only thing that goes on is that the casino manager, played by Benjamin Bratt, chases him around the country due to the test cases, but even that is minor and not frequent in episodes given to critics.)
The lineup and types of guest stars vary greatly from one episode to another. In one, he has a job at a Texas barbecue run by Lil Rel Howery; in another, she’s the frontwoman of a mysterious heavy metal band where Chloë Sevigny is the aging front woman who yearns for a comeback.
Although there was already a part of Lt. Peter Falk’s Columbo in Lyonne Russian doll performance, Charlie is a very different type of character: friendly and curious about people and the world around him. It’s a very interesting and winning performance, where he’s just as good on his own – say, tasting different types of wood to identify one of Lil Rel’s lies – when he’s interacting with great stars like Hong Chau (as an anti-truck transporter of social) or Ellen Barkin (as an Eighties TV star now performing in a dinner theater).
And like Blanc’s films, this is a show that uses every part of the unicorn. No matter how throwaway the scene seems — say, Charlie having a fun encounter with a stranger in a trash can — it will eventually turn out to have some significance to the plot. The whole thing is clever – including many ways it will be able to show the limits of being a human lie detector – and the light on his feet.
That said, because it shows like Poker face have been so rare – or, at least, such that are also carried out this well – there is a danger of praising it too much. Like any action drama, some episodes are stronger than others, especially in Lyon’s gratuitous opening sequence. Episode five, for example, features Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson as former Seventies revolutionaries who are now two of the toughest, meanest people in their retirement community; The combination of the premise and these great veteran actors is so strong, I almost forgot I was waiting for Charlie. But the second episode, which involves three people working the night shift at a convenience store near a truck stop, takes off as soon as the familiar smoke of strawberry blonde hair appears. And even when he does, the flashbacks can make you impatient from time to time until the part where Charlie begins to unravel the killer’s story. (Columbus episodes tended to run between 70 and 100 minutes, and thus had more than enough time for Falk and the guest stars to interact; (after the first 67-minute episode which should establish Charlie’s history and background, the rest are an hour or less, sometimes much less.)
But man, what a relief and joy to see a television show that wants to be a television show, and knows how to do it at this high level. Johnson and Lyon have said that they would like to do Poker face for as long as possible. Here’s hoping to get a chance. This is amazing.
The first four episodes of Poker face will begin streaming January 26 on Peacock, with additional episodes released weekly. I’ve seen the first six out of 10 episodes.