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Poker Face: Season One Review

...in which Natasha Lyonne is on the run and on the case, fleeing the mob as she solves crimes in this Rian Johnson-produced episodic mystery series.

Charlie Cale (Lyonne) is a human lie-detector: she can tell when you’re lying, both about the small stuff and the big stuff. After a series of misadventures that lead to her best friend being killed by a shady casino manager in Nevada, Charlie takes to the road but can’t seem to leave murder behind her.

(Seriously: in each episode, she somehow winds up in the middle of a murder mystery. Remember how we all wondered what Jessica Fletcher was doing, constantly stumbling onto murderers? This show raises exactly the same question and answers it in exactly the same way, which is to say not at all.)

Although this is a very twenty-first century show—especially given Lyonne’s post-ironic, affable, and edgy charm—its roots go further back. Columbo is an obvious ancestor, as is Murder She Wrote. Each episode starts with a murder, and only gradually reveals how Lyonne knew the victim, the murderer, or both. So it’s not a whodunit. It’s a “how will she figure this out?” Or sometimes, “why will she figure this out and somehow still pursue justice, even at great risk to herself?”

The weekly mystery is appealing; some of my favorite plots included the barbecue episode and the punk-band episode. I liked the contained stories, too. Not everything needs to be a multi-season epic mystery that requires drawing diagrams with straws.

But the real appeal is Lyonne, who at this point in her career seems to mostly be playing herself: in Orange is the New Black, Russian Doll, and now Poker Face. That’s not a criticism. Humphrey Bogart, who did his fair share of on-screen detecting, made a career of playing Bogart. Lyonne has all of his charisma, even more charm, and much better hair. Why wouldn’t I want to watch that?

The show also has a kind of... grown-up quality, for lack of a better term. Not “mature” in the sense of grimdark fantasy or explicit sex. And not the version of adulting that focuses on upper-middle class people wallowing in divorce ideation and petty backstabbing. But most of the characters are adults, living real lives, even if they’re not always living well or doing good. The show felt realistic without performative grittiness or nihilism. And it’s filled with little moments of humble beauty, like Charlie chatting with an aging special-effects creator (played by Nick Nolte) about the weight of guilt and the difficulty of catharsis in the eighth episode, “The Orpheus Syndrome.”

That episode was directed by Lyonne herself, and she did an incredible job. As I said above, my favorite plots were the barbecue (episode three) and punk-band (episode six), but my favorite episodes from the perspective of pure style were Lyonne’s and its follow-up, directed by Rian Johnson himself, “Escape from Shit Mountain,” which contains a few different references to The Shining, each of them so hilarious that I will not spoil them here.

The episodic structure also means a new cast each week, and that’s a gift in itself. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tim Meadows, John Darnielle (the author and lead singer of the Mountain Goats!), Chloe Sevigny, Ellen Barkin, Cherry Jones, Luis Guzm├ín, and more. Not to mention Benjamin Bratt, one of the few recurring characters. It was like spending time with one old friend and a bunch of new ones each week.

I’ve hit a wall with TV lately. There are lots of shows that are just fine, but that I’m not particularly attached to. And there are a lot of shows that just feel silly to me: too young, too derivative, too trying-too-hard. Sam Adams, a culture critic at Slate, recently described our current moment as the end of Peak TV and the beginning of Trough TV, which is:

a steroidal hybrid of algorithmic insights and old-school showbiz wisdom about what sells, resulting in a flood of bad-idea IP extensions (Velma, That ’90s Show), true-crime schlock (Netflix’s entire Documentaries tab), and Yellowstone spinoffs. Call it Trough TV, when the networks that once aimed for the stars now see how low they can go.

I’m not as cynical as Adams is about the fate of television, but his description of the average shows these days helps me understand what I like about Poker Face: it’s not sensationalist like true-crime, it’s related to but not replicating past “IP,” and it’s set in a world all its own, but a world that seems an awful lot like the one you and I inhabit.

Above all, it’s got Natasha Lyonne, and that’s the real draw. The show has been renewed for a second season, too!

Four out of four Cocteau horses.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

4 comments:

  1. I just watched "The Orpheus Syndrome" last night, and it was just exceptional. And for some reason, Natasha in that horse costume made me laugh like a maniac. I haven't seen the final two yet, but I'm definitely a fan. So glad it's getting a second season.

    Wonderful write-up, Josie. This show is so creative and just not like anything else.

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  2. I loved that horse costume, too, especially when she was going up the stairs. I couldn't find a decent screenshot for the review!

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  3. Mikey, you're right -- the final two episodes are both brilliant. Only one nitpick, though. I grew up in the Atlantic City area, just like "Charlie,", and that definitely wasn't Atlantic City. :)

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