Poker Face has an ace up its sleeve
Well, thank goodness for Rian Johnson, that's all we can say.
After lifting Star Wars' sequel trilogy with The Last Jedi (aka The Best One — fight us), Johnson gifted Benoit Blanc to the world in the first Knives Out, then the even more fun Glass Onion. If Johnson has an MO, it's to take familiar fare — like a murder mystery — and inject it with wit, intelligence and the unexpected, making something that's both traditional and completely original.
Which brings us to Poker Face.
Peak TV (and the streaming goldrush) may have brought us big budgets, cinematic scope and the regular appearance of movie stars on our TVs, but it's also responsible for enough overstuffed, sagging ten-part dramas to choke a landfill. They often seem to involve secret agents, for some reason.
Poker Face has stars – Russian Doll's Natasha Lyonne chief among them, though each week sees a new bunch of guests – and is ten episodes long, and it even has a gimmick. (A crime-solver with an infallible talent for spotting lies.) But there's a key difference. Just one more thing, if you will. It's got a different location, a different crime and a mostly different cast every week. You got it: it's Columbo for a new generation.
Lyonne's Charlie is on the run (for reasons we won't spoil), and moves on each week like Kane in Kung Fu – namechecked in episode one – or the littlest hobo in The Littlest Hobo. The first half of each episode shows us the murder, the second half reveals how Charlie solves it. Mostly it's a fantastic showcase for Natasha Lyonne's familiar potty-mouthed, cynical but genial persona, but it's more than that – it reminds us that episodic TV can be great!
Decades of low-grade cop-show filler on network TV led us to think that good quality had to mean Big, Important and Ambitious: and so we got seasons-long arcs, bloated backstory and endless moody drone shots. But it turns out to make pacey, snackable TV you just need someone on the creative team willing to take risks.
In the case of Poker Face, it's why we got a fascist dog, the worst metal band in the Mid West and an awful lot of cuts stitched with superglue. You can binge it if you want, but you don't need to – each episode is more or less self-contained, bar the baddies on Charlie's tail. It's fun, it's charming and it's even got a graphic-design theme that harks back to classic '80s TV.
Once again Rian Johnson has shown us we don't have to settle for mediocre. Let's hope the TV industry takes note, because this is how you do it.
Poker Face is available to watch on Now and Sky in the UK and Peacock in the US.
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