FIRST LOOK: Poker Face
NOTE: This is an account of my first impressions regarding Rian Johnson's latest show, "Poker Face", a 10-part series created for NBC's Peacock streaming service.
Having already established his standing as the creator of films featuring a modern spin on classic storytelling tropes, Rian Johnson, the man who has written and directed the facetious 2019 whodunit Knives Out as well as its sequel with the more recent Glass Onion, turns his attention at the small screen and delivers another winner, the 10-part case-of-the-week procedural Poker Face. Paying homage to the classic detective show Columbo, Johnson opted to adopt a similar narrative structure dictating that the who and how of a crime are revealed in the beginning and the whole intrigue is generated through the protagonist's pursuit of the truth, connecting the dots and cornering the villain to confess. This setup may sound as a massive turnoff to the aficionados of the classic cozy whodunit murder mysteries, though the show succeeds in capturing the audience's interest due to the outstanding performance by Natasha Lyonne, who is known chiefly from her role as Nicky Nichols in the acclaimed Orange is the New Black, the galaxy of superstar actors appearing as guests in each episode, and the light, carefree tone conveyed by the well-crafted screenplay. Poker Face offers a contemporary interpretation of the so-called "howcatchem" sub-genre and the final result commensurate with Johnson's talent and unique directorial mindset that keeps providing fascinating experience to the global audiences.
Natasha Lyonne carries the show on her shoulders, and breathes life to the eccentric persona of Charlie Cale, a mature woman working as cocktail waitress in a Las Vegas casino and lives her life day-by-day, never complaining or letting anything get under her skin. Charlie is blessed with an extraordinary charisma: she can always tell when the person opposite her is lying by merely reading into his facial expression and miniscule nuances that people let slip through the cracks of their polished façade. Charlie's gift led to her being blackballed from several casinos as her singular skills deemed her persona non grata to the temples of greed and among the crowd of compulsive gamblers. However, this is as much character background as we get as Johnson doesn't dwell on his protagonist's past, focusing on the present. In her Washington Post review of the show (you can find it here), Lili Loofbourow writes about Charlie: "The world is not against her. She is neither disciplined nor punished, and her past doesn't torment her overmuch". Despite the road-trip aesthetics -Charlie drives a 1969 Plymouth Barracuda dominating the optics of the series, Poker Face is not the type of story that wishes to introduce a character who will become a source of inspiration for the women empowerment movement. In an interview that she gave to the New York Times (read it here), Natasha Lyonne said that she appreciates the women filmmaker who don't succumb to the trap of telling a story through a strictly feminine perspective. Loofbourow observes about the show as a whole: "There’s a plea in there — not for genderlessness, exactly, but for a freedom of narrative movement that femaleness, as conventionally written, impairs".
In the beginning of the first episode (Dead Man's Hand) we watch as a hotel maid, Natalie (Dascha Polanco) is making her customary rounds around the rooms in order to clean. As she enters the luxurious suite, one of the most expensive in the establishment, she accidentally witnesses something truly despicable on the screen of a laptop that has been left open on a table. Terrified, Natalie immediately tells the Head of Security, Cliff (Benjamin Bratt) what she saw and he ushers her to the office of the hotel's director, Sterling Frost Jr. (Adrien Brody). The big boss seems to be shocked and repulsed by what he hears from his employee and he states that he will contact the FBI to investigate the matter. However, as the occupant of the room in question is a big-shot tycoon and loyal client of the casino, Mr. Caine, Sterling Frost Jr. finds another way to deal with the problem, a more definite one. Acting like a gangster and bypassing his father's authority, he orders the murder of Natalie and her lowlife husband who are both executed by Cliff's hand. That's when Charlie enters the picture as she was a good friend of Natalie and there is something about her death that vexes her. Utilizing her singular set of skills, she will become a dilettante detective in order to reveal the truth and expose the culprits. In the end, she is forced to flee from the city as Sterling Frost Jr.'s father swears to avenge his son's death, chasing down Charlie wherever she goes.
Thus, Charlie -unwillingly- becomes a nomad who drives through the American inland and stopping at little towns where she always becomes embroiled in solving murder mysteries. The episodic format of the show, while constraining in some ways and deflating the audience's addiction to binge-watching, provides us with the opportunity to relish a fully-fleshed, self-contained story that, despite beginning with the disclosure of the villain's identity, keeps us glued on our seats and compels us to watch one more episode. The attachment to overused recipes of the past narrative-wise that could be proven disastrous in the hands of another, more inexperienced and less inspired than Johnson, director retains the characteristics that made detective fiction one of the most durable genres in literature while avoiding the pitfall of mere repetition that would result in a litany-like type of show. Apart from Lyonne, who gives the best performance in her career so far, balancing effortlessly between the bold and the farcical, the series cast several heavy names in the American movieland such as Nick Nolte, Ellen Barkin, Chloë Sevigny, Ron Perlman, Hong Chau, who showcased her acting talent in The Menu as the vicious Elsa, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and many others that parade on screen throughout the season's ten episodes.
Despite the creator declining the audience's eternal request to be a part of the solution, craving for the opportunity to put the pieces of the puzzle in the right order, Poker Face is a standout TV series bearing many merits and the signature of one of the most promising filmmakers of our time, Rian Johnson. It's a feel-good show as it deflects any notion of moral ambiguity; there are the good guys versus the villains. Regarding that matter, Kathryn VanArendonk, in her review on Vulture.com (you can read it here), writes: "There's an almost reflexive insistence that surely the murderers are evil, and surely the victims are, if not pure, at least wildly undeserving of their fates". Johnson's latest feat is much more than watchable and an optimal choice for those who fancy genuine entertainment on their small screens.
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