In Rian Johnson’s classic style, the first episode of Poker Face manages to be almost entirely about poker without showing a single hand of the game. Johnson has a reputation for slipping around audience expectations. This series is no exception.
Poker Face follows Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne) an ex-poker pro who can tell when people are lying every time and with total accuracy. It’s the gimmick of a Lightman from Lie To Me or a Jane from The Mentalist but cranked up to eleven.
Poker Face is not so much a whodunnit as a howcatchem
Although the series is full of references to other detectives, the most obvious formal comparison is with the TV shows Columbo. Like these two shows, Poker Face is not so much a whodunnit as a howcatchem. The audience follows the criminal as they commit the crime then follows Cale as she tries to figure out what we have already seen.
Expecting the unexpected
The trick of the howcatchem genre is to still give the audience the thrill of solving a mystery when we’re already privy to what would be the big reveal in a standard mystery procedural. Johnson managed to pull this gimmick off brilliantly in Knives Out (2019), and does a solid job in Poker Face’s first episode ‘Dead Man’s Hand.’
This episode finds Cale working as a cocktail waitress at the Frost Casino when Sterling Frost Jr (Adrien Brody) calls her in to help him teach a lesson to a whale. The whale has been hosting a secret poker game in his hotel room, thereby dodging the casino’s rake.
Frost wants Cale to watch a video feed as the whale plays and let Frost’s shill know when he is bluffing using a clicker device, helping Frost win back the money he feels he’s lost. With a setup like that, one imagines Johnson is at least peripherally aware of the Mike Postle scandal.
While this poker scam is getting set up, Cale is on the hunt for whoever staged the murder-suicide of her friend and her friend’s boyfriend. After an hour of cat and mouse, Cale brings the two plots together and everything is wrapped up in time for her to move on to next week’s all new location with all new characters.
Does Poker Face work?
Reviews for Poker Face have been largely positive. The show is far better written, acted, and directed than any NBC procedural would usually deserve and Johnson’s success at Netflix allows him to put a lot of production value on screen.
Some credit should also be given to Steve Yedlin for his photography on the series. Each episode has that 70s-inflected color palette which is now a signature of Yedlin’s work with Johnson (Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the Knives Out movies). The episodes are gorgeous to look at.
Johnson slips enough tricks past the audience to keep things engaging
The first episode has a 99% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with the highest accolades going to Lyonne for her performance and Johnson for his writing. Some of the twists are foreshadowed a little hard and the social commentary is a little clunky, but Johnson slips enough tricks past the audience to keep things engaging.
How well the series works overall will depend entirely on whether Johnson can keep those twists coming episode after episode. That’s going to take a feat of reading his audience that even Cale might struggle to keep up with. So far though, it looks like he’s pulling it off.
New episodes of Poker Face come out on Peacock every Thursday.
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