For all the narrative and technological advances of so-called prestige TV, time and again I find myself wistfully recalling the days when everyone sat down at the same time to watch the same show. It’s one of the reasons I still submit myself to the diminishing returns of free-to-air television: the knowledge that someone, somewhere, is enjoying a re-run of Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom at the same time as me on a Saturday evening.
What a delight, then, that Rian Johnson’s latest project, Poker Face, feels just like settling down on the couch to see whodunnit this week. The show – new episodes air weekly on Stan – stars Natasha Lyonne as Charlie Cale, a down-on-her-luck Las Vegas cocktail waitress who possesses a superpower of sorts: she can tell when someone is lying (or, as she puts it, “bullshitting”). As she’s been forced to abstain from employing her skills in low-stakes poker games, this skill comes in less handy than you might think in Sin City.
When her conniving boss (played with great glee by Adrien Brody) gets wind of Charlie’s ability, what begins as a fun party trick soon – by way of a staged murder, and an additional sudden death – develops into the narrative conceit that spurs Poker Face into a Columbo-adjacent stroll. She flees across the country, pursued by her boss’s hired gun Cliff (Benjamin Bratt, the sole other repeating character). Along the way, while she might not be a cop or a PI, damned if she won’t use her talent to give the right people the right information to solve a local murder before she moves on.
Lyonne is a dream as the cantankerous but kind Charlie, equal parts Jeannie Berlin and Carole Lombard. I could stare at that particular set of her jaw for hours, which is convenient, since Poker Face’s amiable – at times even a bit boring – pace affords plenty of time to do so. This low-key context also allows Lyonne’s madcap energy to shine. In the third episode, one of her scene partners is a scruffy terrier that loves listening to right-wing talkback; in their moments together, the frisson is pure Bringing Up Baby.
Part of the joy of the resolutely old-fashioned structure of Poker Face is in its resistance to binge-viewing, even for those saving up half a dozen episodes. While procedurals, and their characters’ role in the machinations – whether they’re cops, paranormal investigators or cocktail waitresses with a preternatural ability to sniff out bullshit – might be approached from lightly freshened angles episode to episode, they ultimately rely on the pleasure of predictability. The story engine of episodic TV necessitates a break between episodes to allow the formula to “rest”. However enjoyable we may think it might be to mainline 12 episodes of, say, Law & Order: SVU, doing so eventually begins to feel like engaging in dun! dun! deja vu.
Bingeable TV shows seem like “10-hour movies” because, essentially, they’re written that way – each episode is a smaller plot point in the entire season’s arc. In Poker Face, each episode repeats the formula laid out in the pilot. We see a new character’s murder, then flash back to discover Charlie’s entanglement with the victim as she skips across America. Then we get out the popcorn as she discovers the truth and sets things on the path to justice before moving on. We maintain a vigilance for Charlie staying ahead of Cliff, but mostly we’re left each episode to wonder which beloved character actor might show up only to get offed.
Johnson has been busily putting together one of the most strikingly diverse oeuvres of modern Hollywood, from offbeat sci-fi (Looper) to prestige TV (directing several episodes of Breaking Bad), and from one of the greatest Star Wars films, The Last Jedi, to the amiable Benoit Blanc whodunnits Knives Out and Glass Onion. He really could have done anything next, so there’s something wonderful about Johnson and his collaborators (who include directors Janicza Bravo and Iain B. MacDonald) revelling in such old-fashioned television narrative with Poker Face. The only thing that would make it better would be if they’d shot commercials to complete the “10pm on a Saturday night” experience.
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