A casino, a rest stop, a Texas BBQ restaurant and a touring heavy metal band. What do they all have in common? Murder, lies and a woman who finds herself caught up in all of it.
Poker Face, whose first four episodes out of ten are out right now on NBCUniversal’s Peacock, is the most recent project by Rian Johnson, the mind behind mystery films such as Knives Out and Glass Onion. With those credentials, it’s not surprising that he can competently craft a weekly murder mystery. However, the various cases, while always entertaining, are not the show’s only strength; that would be the main character Charlie Cale, played by Natasha Lyonne (“Russian Doll,” “Orange is the New Black”). A woman on the run from her former employer, Charlie is a complex character, torn between her own self-preservation and her desire to do what is morally right. Oh, and one small detail: She has the uncanny ability to instantly tell when anyone is lying to her.
One might assume that having a character who can tell when someone is lying would make for a dull show, or that the cases would be solved quickly. The real fun is watching Charlie sort out what is the truth and where the lies fit into the puzzle. The best part? The audience knows more than Charlie most of the time. Presented in the “howcatchem style,” the episodes typically present the first part of the episode as establishing the murderer, the victim and the crime itself. We as the audience know how it all goes down. Most shows would have the sleuth come in after the murder, and piece together the rest from there. Poker Face sets itself apart by jumping back in time to the episode’s start, showing the events from Charlie’s perspective and explaining how she found herself embroiled in the episode’s death. Sometimes, the death is even a result of Charlie’s actions in the town, creating a further sense of obligation to help solve the mystery. The thing I love most about the show is the fact that it allows itself to be an episodic series, lacking a real overarching plot across most episodes. Charlie is on the run, and her former boss Cliff Legrand (Benjamin Bratt) is on her tail. Beyond that, every episode is free to tell its own story.
Charlie as a character drives the show, and it is immediately obvious that the character was written for Lyonne, who also serves as an executive producer. When we meet Charlie, she thinks she’s already had enough excitement in her life and is content in her life as a cocktail waitress at a Vegas casino. When she becomes embroiled in a criminal conspiracy involving her co-worker and the owner of the casino, she goes on the run rather than silently accepting her role in the criminal operation. That is what makes the character so compelling. It would be a lot easier for her to keep her head down and keep driving through these towns rather than try and help their people out. The first episode establishes her as paranoid, suspicious of most people (due to her ability to catch lies), but also believes that there are fundamentally good people out there — the type of people she usually meets who usually wind up dead — and it’s her duty to do good by them even if it puts herself at risk.
It’s hard to craft a good mystery, and one might argue revealing the identity of a killer takes away the suspense. Despite this, Poker Face manages to not only create compelling mysteries for its protagonist to unravel, but by bringing the audience in on the means, motives and methods, the show becomes all the more satisfying when she brings the truth to light.
Show: “Poker Face”
Starring: Natasha Lyonne, Benjamin Bratt
Favorite Episode so far: “Episode 3: Dead Man’s Hand”
If you like: “Knives Out,” “Glass Onion,” “Columbo”
Where to Watch: Peacock
Shamrocks: 5 out of 5
Contact Andy Ottone at firstname.lastname@example.org