The Rian Johnson-created, Natasha Lyonne-starring case-of-the-week show is all killer, no filler.
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When we meet Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne), she’s living in a trailer on the outskirts of Las Vegas and working in a casino she once tried to fleece. Charlie, you see, was previously a successful professional poker player with an uncanny ability to tell when someone was lying – a skill that comes in handy again when she’s forced to go on the run and finds herself caught up in a series of strange murder cases. The creation of Rian Johnson (Knives Out), Poker Face takes inspiration from classic case-of-the-week TV series like Magnum PI and Quantum Leap, and features a cast of one-off guest stars including Adrien Brody, Judith Light, Chloë Sevigny, John Hodgman and Mountain Goats musician John Darnielle.
There’s one detective who comes up more than anyone in coverage of Poker Face: Columbo, the blue-collar homicide detective played by Peter Falk in the long-running TV series of the same name. Watch a clip of Falk in action and the resemblance to Lyonne is undeniable, from the shambling gait to the raspy voice, to the idiosyncratic personal style. The story structure, too, is a mirror image: Poker Face, like Columbo, eschews the classic whodunnit set-up for what Wikipedia – and, I suspect, precisely no one else – calls the “howcatchem” format. We see who committed the murder (it’s always a murder) at the start, and the fun is in watching our protagonist unravel the clues.
It’s not just the great Lieutenant Columbo that Poker Face will remind you of, though. Their milieus could hardly be more different, but there’s more than a bit of Miss Marple in Charlie Cale. Like Agatha Christie’s heroine, Charlie is an amateur sleuth with an eye for the telling detail and a curiosity about the dark side of human nature. Like her literary forebear, Charlie is regularly under-estimated – because she’s a woman, perhaps, but mostly because she doesn’t fit with people’s ideas of what a investigator looks like. And of course, both Jane and Charlie have simply rotten luck with all the murder cases they find themselves stumbling into, week after week after week.
As you can tell from these comparisons, Poker Face is not trying to reinvent the wheel. But that doesn’t really matter when the man behind the camera is Rian Johnson, the writer-director who, with the Knives Out series and before that the movies Looper and Brick, has carved a niche as Hollywood’s foremost creator of intricate puzzle-box mysteries. If Lyonne’s unique charisma is a big part of Poker Face’s success, so is Johnson’s consummate skill as a storyteller. This is clearly a series in which the details are sweated over, from the 80s-style opening credits to the groovy, retro-inspired soundtrack, featuring the likes of Tom Waits, Donald Fagen and The Louvin Brothers.
That meticulous approach is nowhere more apparent than in the characters who drift in and out of Charlie’s life as she drives her Plymouth Barracuda across the southern states. Before she makes her entrance at the start of each episode’s act two, we get around 17 minutes of set-up: we meet the victim and the murderer(s) and see how and why the deed was done. It’s not a huge amount of time, but Poker Face presents us with characters so vividly drawn, so rounded and believable, that we can’t help but be invested by the time Charlie ambles onto the screen. These people are about as far away from the stock characters of traditional murder mysteries – the philandering husband, the jealous lover, the wealthy heiress – as you can get. Take for example episode four, ‘Rest in Metal’. Anyone who’s hung around musicians will instantly recognise both Ruby (Chloë Sevigny), the bitter, washed-up lead singer of one-hit-wonder band Doxxology, and Gavin (Nicholas Cirillo), a puppyish, mentally unstable young drummer who has the misfortune of joining them on tour.
And then there’s Charlie herself. On the run from her former bosses back in Vegas, she’s by necessity both a vagabond and a loner, but one who actually likes people – the world’s misfits, dreamers and lost souls in particular. It’s this amiable, freewheeling spirit, embodied by the force of nature that is Natasha Lyonne, that helps make Poker Face such a joy to watch.
I’m really reaching here – Poker Face is great – but right now the “Charlie on the run” storyline doesn’t make much sense except as a narrative strategy to keep her moving from place to place. On the other hand, you don’t hire Benjamin Bratt just to turn up in the final minutes of each episode and look menacing while Charlie slips away. There has to be more to come.
Peter Falk played Columbo for more than three decades, one of the longest starring runs in TV history. Nobody’s expecting Poker Face to be around in the 2050s – but if there’s any justice, we’ll be watching Lyonne as Charlie Cale for a few more years yet.