TV: Poker Face (Season 1)

On one level, it’s surprising a show like Poker Face could succeed in the current TV landscape, but on another level, no—it’s surprising it didn’t happen sooner. A throwback to the classic network mystery-of-the-week format, upgraded for modern sensibilities? In retrospect, it’s a no-brainer. A neat trick, this one caters to nostalgic boomers and Peak TV junkies alike while managing not to alienate either demographic.

Naturally, it would be the master of recombinant homage, Rian Johnson, who would make this happen, here in collaboration with the incomparable Natasha Lyonne. Lyonne exudes a charming Peter Falkishness as Charlie Cale, a free-spirited ne’er-do-well with a special talent: she’s essentially a human lie detector. Charlie is so good at telling truth from falsehood that, in the pilot, she gets recruited by the scheming manager of a Las Vegas Casino, Sterling Frost, Jr. (Adrien Brody), into an ill-fated confidence game. The plan goes sideways in a hurry, making Charlie a target of Frost’s father (Ron Perlman), who assigns his relentless fixer Cliff LeGrand (Benjamin Bratt) to track her down and bring her back. Soon enough, she’s running for her life, a fugitive scraping by on the backroads of America. While her primary aim is to stay off the grid and evade capture, she also develops a real knack for solving mysteries—her uncanny lie-detecting skills making her, as she puts it, “surprisingly good at this!”

The basic idea behind Poker Face is to resurrect the spirit of old-school, network TV mystery procedurals. While there’s a cagey nostalgia to the trappings—exemplified brilliantly in the purposely dated fonts of the credit sequence—there’s also enough Peak TV technique on display to woo contemporary viewers. Both Johnson and Lyonne clearly revere those classic network TV vibes, and here they tap into a number of memorable properties. I could well be missing some, but four influences leaped to my mind. First, and most obvious, is Columbo; Lyonne’s Charlie possesses a shabby, unprepossessing intelligence not dissimilar to Peter Falk’s titular detective. Second, and perhaps a slightly deeper cut, is The Fugitive, since Charlie’s drifting, wayward adventures have a certain roadside, Richard Kimble randomness to them, as she takes odd jobs and weaves her way into local woodwork just long enough to solve problems and deliver justice. There are also smidges of The Rockford Files (those credits, plus Charlie’s affable, James Garnerish verbal floundering) and Murder, She Wrote (a clever, mystery-solving protagonist who ends up being an unfailing magnet for murderous mayhem wherever she goes).

If you like those sorts of shows, but want to see them jazzed up for our fucked-up century, Poker Face consistently deals out the cards, polishing its nostalgia to fit a new era. It’s nicely produced, briskly paced, smart in an undemanding way, charming, and funny. Charlie’s revolving door of odd jobs and friendships gives Lyonne ample opportunity to shine comedically, and the weekly roster serves up a litany of delightful star power. My favorite guests this season include Hong Chau, Nicholas Cirillo, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Luis Guzmán, Simon Helberg, Stephanie Hsu, Tim Meadows, and Nick Nolte, but you could easily double that list and not run out of great performances. Just as in the old shows it’s celebrating, a lot of the fun is in seeing who turns up every week to populate the episode, as an ally, a suspect, or a villain.

One drawback may be that Poker Face develops and hews to a formula predictably. First, an opening sequence that builds the episode’s world and shows us the crime; second, a flashback sequence that cleverly integrates Charlie into that world; and finally, a mystery-solving act that resolves with Charlie recklessly confronting the villain with her theories. This one isn’t about who did it, but how they’re caught out; in a televisual era dominated my linear shock and spoiler alerts, it occasionally feels weird to know the culprit and still be watching. Even on that point, though, Poker Face doesn’t fall down badly; as the season progresses, it structurally mixes things up to add episodic variety.

The verdict: Poker Face won’t push everyone’s buttons, but its singular mission is exceptionally well realized, especially for those us steeped in the grainy afternoon reruns it honors. It conjures memories of simpler times, while still acknowledging certain unshakable realities of our own. Long may Charlie roam!

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