by Bobbi A. Chukran
Poker Face, the television show launched in January 2023, is a murder-mystery-of-the-week series featuring an offbeat, quirky premise. Its great episodic storytelling hearkens back to the classic TV crime shows like Colombo. In other words, these are fun “howcatchem” adventures.
A close observer will immediately notice that even the titles, both the font and the color, of each episode have the look of those from an old TV cop show. The New York Times wittingly called Poker Face “The Best New Detective Show of 1973.”
The story starts with “Dead Man’s Hand.” Charlie Cale (played by Natasha Lyonne), a Frost Casino cocktail waitress who was once a cardsharp, has been blackballed from playing because Charlie has a gift. Charlie is a human lie-detector. That’s her “superpower,” and she always knows when someone’s not telling the truth. Her signature blurted “Bullshit!” is heard often in her exchanges with the low-lifes that she meets. She has a compulsion to bluntly call it, and this is what leads her into trouble every single time. She explains it this way in the first episode, shrugging, “It’s something I have. I hear bullshit, I call ‘bullshit.’”
After the suspicious death of her co-worker friend and an incident with the killer, she goes off on the lam in her classic Plymouth Barracuda. She is chased throughout the series by Cliff LeGrand (played by Benjamin Bratt), the head of security at the casino and the personal enforcer of the mysterious owner.
This episode launches the series and might feel a bit slow-paced. Trust me. Stick with it. Every detail is important and is necessary to set up the story that will come afterwards. Lots of unanswered questions will be revealed by the end of the ten-episode first season.
Charlie is at heart an amateur detective, a whole lot like Colombo, a little bit Holmes, and a whole lot of attitude. Her raspy voice, disheveled appearance, klutzy mannerisms and quirks are part of her charm, and I found myself warming up to the character immediately.
The inverted, sometimes farcical plots where the crime and perpetrators are shown at the beginning of each story, are character-driven — the main reason I love Poker Face. The acting and writing is excellent with a star-studded cast of guest stars such as Adrien Brody, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Barkin, Chloë Sevigny, John Ratzenberger, Tim Meadows, Judith Light, Nick Nolte, Ron Perlman, and others.
The “wrong place, wrong time” theme is at work here, and Charlie finds herself both on the run and helping solve murder mysteries in each location as she travels across the country. Once she knows that someone is intentionally lying, and she always does, she gets entangled in the mystery and has to make things right, always with heavy personal damage to herself.
The locations are diverse and part of what makes Poker Face so interesting. Whether at a rustic outdoors BBQ joint, as a roadie for a has-been rocker, or as the victim of a hit-and-run stranded at a motel during a blizzard, each week Charlie meets a cast of new, mostly blue-collar, characters who are somehow involved in a crime that she can’t seem to step away from. Of course, none of her efforts go quite right for Charlie, and she gets deeper into trouble. She just can’t catch a break. We constantly wonder, “How in the world will she ever get out of this mess?”
And yes, the humor is sometimes black.
The inverted format of most of the episodes, also like Colombo, makes the show more intriguing. A scene will open with a crime being played out, then we go back in time and the scene is replayed with Charlie’s role in it, and we see how she got involved. The stories are twisty, and reverse and turn when you least expect it. In fact, the last episode of the first season features a huge twist in a shocking finale that I never saw coming. The clues were there all along, and the plot is brilliant.
Poker Face is the brainstorm of Rian Johnson, the creator behind Knives Out and Glass Onion. Each episode is written by a different person, with Ms. Lyonne (along with Alice Ju) writing the campy Episode Eight, “The Orpheus Syndrome.” Ms. Lyonne also acts as Executive Producer of the series.
Music plays a big part here, and you’ll hear many familiar snippets as Charlie journeys from one disaster to the next. Her signature song is a beautiful, haunting banjo melody.
Poker Face has been renewed for a second season where we see Charlie once again off on the run, this time from a much more powerful crime figure. I can’t wait to see what trouble she’ll get into and how she gets out of it, and the characters she’ll meet along the way.
Poker Face streams on Peacock, owned by NBC.
Note: Sensitive viewers might be put off by the heavy use of profanity. These characters are not choir boys.
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