Once upon a time time, most television was like Poker facethe new Peacock drama created by Glass onion‘s Rian Johnson and cast Russian doll‘s Natasha Lyonne. It’s a purely episodic, case-of-the-week show. 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 some extremely loose threads going on, but you could in theory watch every episode but the first in any order and get the same enjoyment out of each episode. It’s a show that leans hugely on the appeal of its star and on Johnson and the other writers and directors’ ability to make each story so interesting that you want to come back for more without any real hint of To be continued.
For decades, television worked this way. Then it came The thread, Breaking 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 somehow contribute to a larger story, what was the point?
In many ways, television has benefited greatly 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 offered by telling one story about one set of characters for years. But in other ways we have really lost something. Serialization has become as much of a formula as pure episodic storytelling used to be. Too many showrunners — whether they’re 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—falsely assumes that an ongoing narrative is fundamentally interesting just because it spans an entire season or series. Complexity is treated as rewarding for its own sake, rather than because it adds any value to the story being told. So we get these long, amorphous slams – “It’s a 10-hour movie!” — who forget how to entertain because all they care about is forward momentum.
Thank God, then, for Johnson, Lyonne and everyone else involved in the making Poker face. It implements all the best elements of yesteryear, but in a way that makes the show feel completely modern – in the same way that Knives out and Glass onion is inspired by Agatha Christie mysteries without feeling like dusty period pieces.
Charlie, we learn, was once an unrivaled poker player thanks to an unusual, essentially superhuman ability: she can always tell when someone is lying. Eventually she ran into the wrong people and now works as a cocktail waitress at a casino in Nevada just trying to stay out of trouble. But as is the case with these kinds of shows, trouble inevitably keeps finding 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 Columbo open mystery and the approach Johnson has taken with the Benoit Blanc films. Each episode opens with 10-15 minutes without Charlie as we meet the killers and their victims and see how and why the killing took place. The stories then rewind to show how Charlie already knew these characters before we finally get to her figuring out what happened as well as a way to bring the bad guys to justice – even though Charlie isn’t a cop and in fact, has to stay clear of the law because the events of the first episode make her a fugitive who must travel anonymously from town to town. (The only ongoing element is that a casino enforcer, played by Benjamin Bratt, chases her across the country due to the events of the pilot, but even that is relatively minor and rare in the episodes given to critics.)
The settings and types of guest stars vary wildly from one episode to the next. In one, she has a job at a Texas grill run by Lil Rel Howery; in another, she’s a roadie for a one-hit wonder heavy metal band, with Chloë Sevigny as the aging frontwoman desperate for a comeback.
Although there was already a bit of Peter Falk’s Lieutenant Columbo in Lyonnes Russian doll performance, Charlie is a very different character: kind and curious about the people and the world around her. It’s a completely magnetic and winning performance, in which she’s just as good on her own — for example, tasting different woods to identify one of Lil Rel’s lies — as she is interacting with fantastic guest stars like Hong Chau (as an anti- social long-haul trucker) or Ellen Barkin (as an eighties TV star now performing in dinner theatre).
And like the Blanc films, this is a show that uses every part of the buffalo. No matter how disposable a scene seems – e.g. Charlie having a funny encounter with a stranger at a garbage can – will eventually turn out to have some kind of significance to the plot. It’s all pretty damn clever – including the many ways it manages to demonstrate the limits of being a human lie detector – and light on its feet.
Having said that, because shows like Poker face have become so rare – or at least ones that are also done so well – there is a risk of wildly overpraising it. Like any episodic drama, some episodes are stronger than others, especially in the Lyonne-free opening sequences. The fifth episode, for example, features Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson as former seventies revolutionaries who are now the two toughest, meanest men in their retirement community; The combination of that premise and these great veteran actors is so strong that I almost forgot I was waiting for Charlie. But the second episode, involving a trio of people who work the night shift in stores next to a truck stop, doesn’t really start until the familiar mop of strawberry blonde hair comes into view. And even when she does appear, 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 tended to run 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 to establish Charlie’s backstory and premise, all the others are an hour or less, sometimes considerably less.)
But damn, what a relief and pleasure 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 want to make Poker face for as long as they possibly can. Here’s hoping they get 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 have watched the first six of 10 episodes.