A Star-Studded, Highly-Addictive Case-of-the-Week Series – Rolling Stone

Once a period, most television was similar poker facethe new Peacock drama created by Glass onionand Rian Johnson and the stars Russian dollshe is Natasha Lyonne. It’s a purely episodic, issue-of-the-week show. Each episode sets up its own unique story, which Lyonne’s Charlie Cale finds a way to wrap up by the end of the hour. Continuing threads are extremely loose, but you could in theory watch all but the first episode in any order and enjoy each one equally. It’s a show that relies heavily on its star appeal, and on the ability of Johnson and the other writers and directors to make each individual story so interesting that you’ll want to come back for more without a second thought. whatever it is To be continued.

For decades, this is how television worked. Then came together The Wire, Breaking bad, Game of Thrones, etc., and suddenly the issue of the week was over – simple 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 even the point?

In many ways, television has benefited greatly from this trend. The best shows of this century have been able to aim higher, dig deeper, and make incredible use of time by telling a story about one set of characters for years later. But in other ways, we’ve really missed something. Serialization has become as much of a formula as straight storytelling used to be. Too many showrunners – whether they’re screenwriters trying to expand the plot of a movie they couldn’t sell, or just someone who got the wrong lessons from watching The Sopranosor think it would be easy to just copy Breaking badstructure – mistakenly assuming that an ongoing narrative is inherently interesting simply because it runs for an entire season, or an entire series. Complexity is treated as a reward for its own sake, rather than because it adds any value to the story being told. So we get those long, amorphous pits – “It’s a 10-hour movie! ” – that forget how to entertain because all they care about is moving on.

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Thank you, then, for Johnson, Lyonne, and everyone else involved in making poker face. It uses the best elements of the previous eras, but in a way that makes the show feel completely modern – in the same way that Knives out and Glass onion inspired by Agatha Christie mysteries without feeling like dusty period pieces.

Charlie, we learn, was once an unstoppable poker player thanks to an unusual, essentially superhuman ability: she can always tell when someone is lying. Eventually, she ran away from 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 types 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 combination of the classic Columbo open secret and the approach Johnson has taken with the Benoit Blanc films. Each episode opens with 10-15 minutes without Charlie, as we meet the murderers and their victims and see how and why the killing happened. Then the stories come back to show how Charlie already knew these characters, before we finally get to find out what happened, as well as a way to make the bad guys see justice – even though Charlie is not a cop and, of course, has to stay away from the law because the events of the first episode make her a fugitive who has to travel anonymously from town to town. (The only continuing element is the fact that a casino enforcer, played by Benjamin Bratt, runs around the country as a result of the events of the pilot, but even that is relatively minor and rare in the episodes given to critics.)

Lil Rel Howery as Taffy in ‘Poker Face.’


The choices and types of guest stars vary wildly from one episode to the next. In one, she has a job at a Texas barbecue run by Lil Rel Howery; in another, she’s a roadie for an amazing heavy metal band where Chloë Sevigny is the aging frontwoman who wants to make a comeback.

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Although a few of Lt. Peter Falk’s Columbo in Lyonne Russian doll performance, Charlie is a very different character: friendly and curious about the people and the world around her. It’s a completely magnetic and successful show, where she’s just as good herself – say, tasting different types of wood to celebrate one of Lil Rel’s lies – as she is interacting with stars a great host like Hong Chau (as an anti-social long trucker) or Ellen Barkin (as an Eighties TV star now playing in a dinner theater).

And like the Blanc films, this is a show that uses every part of the buffalo. It doesn’t matter how fragile a scene is – say, when Charlie meets a stranger at a garbage can – it will turn out in the end to be important to the plot. The whole thing is damn clever – including the many ways he manages to show the limits of being a human lie detector – and light on his feet.

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That said, because shows like poker face has become so rare – or, at least, similar ones that are also executed in this well – there is a risk of praising it too much. As with any documentary drama, some episodes are stronger than others, especially in the opening sequences without Lyonne. In the fifth episode, for example, Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson can be seen as the post-revolutionaries of the Seventies who are now the two hardest, most extensive areas of their retirement community; the combination of that concept and those excellent actors is so strong, I almost forgot I was waiting for Charles. But the second episode, in which three people work at night at shops next to a truck stop, only comes away once that familiar mop of straw blonde hair comes into view. And even when she turns up, the flashback sections may occasionally leave you impatient to get to the part where Charlie starts to poke holes in the killer’s story. (Columbo episodes tended to run between 70 and 100 minutes, so they had more than enough time for Falk and the guest stars to interact; (after a 67-minute debut episode that sets up Charlie’s backstory and premise, all others are an hour or less, sometimes significantly less.)


But goddamn, it’s a relief and a joy to see a TV show that really wants to be a TV show, and knows how to do it at this high level. Johnson and Lyonne have said they would like to do it poker face as far as they can. Here’s hoping they get a chance. This one is wonderful.

The first four sections of poker face begin streaming January 26 on Peacock, with additional episodes released weekly. I have seen the first six of 10 episodes.


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