Once upon a time a time, most of the television was the same Poker faceThe new Peacock game was created by Glass Onion‘s Rian Johnson and stars A Russian dollNatasha Lyonne. It’s just an episodic, story-of-the-week show. Each episode tackles its own story, which Lyonne’s Charlie Cale finds a way to finish at the end of the hour. There are some very loose threads going on, but in theory you could watch all but the first episode in any order and get the same enjoyment from each. It’s a show that relies heavily on the appeal of its star, and on the ability of Johnson and the other writers and directors to make each story so interesting that you’ll want to come back for more without any real clue. To be continued.
For decades, this is how TV works. Then it came The Wire, Breaking bad, Game of Thrones, etc., and suddenly the story of the past week – simple things from a time before we knew that TV could be better. Serialization was the new king, and if each episode wasn’t going to deliver a big story, what was the point?
In many ways, television has benefited greatly from this change. The best shows of this century have managed to aim high, dig deep, and take incredible advantage of the amount of time afforded by telling a single story with a set of characters for years on end. But in other ways, we have lost something. Serialization has become as much of a formula as episodic stories used to be. There are too many presenters – whether it’s writers trying to stretch the plot of a movie they can’t sell, or someone taking the wrong lessons from watching. The Sopranosor think it would be easier to just copy Breaking badThe structure of ‘— wrongly assume that a continuous narrative is really interesting because it spans an entire season, or series. Complexity is seen as a reward for its own sake, not because it adds any value to the story being told. So we get these long, amorphous sludges – “This is a 10-hour movie!” – which forget to entertain because all they care about is the future.
Thank goodness, then, for Johnson, Lyonne, and everyone else involved in the production Poker face. It channels all the best elements of the past, but in a way that makes the show feel modern – in the same way. Knives Out and Glass Onion inspired by Agatha Christie mysteries without feeling like dusty period pieces.
Charlie, we learn, is an inexplicable former poker player due to an unusual, superhuman ability: he can always tell when someone is lying. In the end, he fell out with the wrong people, and now works as a hotel waiter at 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 killer that only he can solve, because he knows that the killer is full of it.
The format is a combination of quality Columbus it’s an open secret and the way he took Johnson and the films of Benoit Blanc. Each episode opens with 10-15 minutes without Charlie, where we meet the killer and the victims and find out how and why the killing happened. Then the stories go back to show how Charlie already knew these characters, before we get to him thinking about what happened, as well as how to bring the bad guys to justice – even though Charlie is not a policeman and, in fact, he has to stay away from the law because the events of the first episode make him a fugitive who has to walk incognito from town to town. (The only thing going on is that the casino patron, played by Benjamin Bratt, is chasing him across the country because of the pilot’s activities, but even that is small and rare in the parts given to critics.)
The schedules and types of guest stars vary greatly from one episode to the next. In one, he has a job at a Texas barbecue run by Lil Rel Howery; in another, he’s a roadie for a one-hit wonder heavy metal band where Chloë Sevigny is the frontwoman who longs for a comeback.
Although there was already a bit of Peter Falk’s Lt. Columbo in Lyonne’s A Russian doll performance, Charlie is a very different type of personality: he is friendly and curious about people and the world around him. A truly magnetic and winning performance, where he can only enjoy himself – say, tasting different types of wood to see one of Lil Rel’s lies – as he is meeting with terrific guest stars like Hong Chau (as the antagonist- the long-haul driver) or Ellen Barkin (as the Eighties TV star who is now acting in the theater) .
And like Blanc’s movies, this show uses every part of the buffalo. No matter how disposable the scene is – say, Charlie having a funny encounter with a stranger at a garbage can – it will ultimately have plot value. The whole thing is judged by intelligence – including the many ways he can show the limits of being a lie detector – and light on its feet.
That said, because it shows similarities Poker face it has become less – or, at least, similar to what is also done in this well – there is a danger of magnifying it too much. Like any episodic drama, some parts are stronger than others, especially in the Lyonne-free opening sequence. The fifth section, for example, has Judith Chiedza and S. Epatha Merkerson as former rebels of the seventies who are now two tough, scary people in their retirement community; the combination of the premise and these old characters are so strong, I almost forgot I was waiting for Charlie. But the second episode, involving three people who work night shifts at a convenience store near a truck stop, only takes off when a familiar mop of strawberry blonde hair appears. And even when he gets up, the back episodes can leave you impatient until the part where Charlie starts poking holes in the murder case. (Columbus episodes ran between 70 and 100 minutes, and thus had more than enough time for Falk and the guest stars to interact; (after the first 67 minutes the episode should establish Charlie’s backstory and context, the rest are an hour or less, sometimes a little less.)
But god, how refreshing and exciting it is to see a TV show that really wants to be TV, and that knows how to do that on a high level. Johnson and Lyonne have said they would like to produce Poker face for as long as they can. Here they are hoping to get an opportunity. This one is amazing.
The first four parts of Poker face begin airing January 26 on Peacock, with additional episodes released weekly. I watched the first six of the ten episodes.