A preliminary review of Poker Face

I really enjoyed the Natasha Lyonne lead series Russian Doll and I like the films of Rian Johnson, so I was very interested when the series Poker Face was announced. Lyonne has often been compared to Peter Falk and as a possible actor for an updated version of his most iconic role: Columbo. The connection led to a visual joke in Russian Doll 2 when Lyonne’s character encounters the statue of Columbo in Budapest.

Poker Face is more of a homage to Columbo and seventies TV in general than a reboot. The primary connection is not Lyonne’s character but the initial use of the same plot devices. Each episode starts with us meeting some new characters, one of whom kills or attempts to kill another person. The (attempted) murder is also one contrived in such a way that the killer has good reason to believe that they will get away it. Sometimes, they contrive the death to look accidental or suicide or committed by somebody else. With Columbo, this setup proved surprisingly fertile for a long-running series of detective dramas. Removing both the whodunnit and howdunnit and even sometimes the whydunnit aspect of detective fiction sounds like there would be nothing left but Falk’s capacity to unravel the deception proved to be TV gold.

Poker Face abandons the police element and adds some extra structural parts to the formula. After the Columbo style opening (person A kills person B and covers up the crime), we rewind a bit to discover more of the backstory and that Lyonne’s character Charlie was to some degree already involved with the set of characters. The events of the (attempted) murder are revisited with more explanation and then the story proceeds into the unravelling of the crime.

Here the show borrows from other classic US TV shows, in particular those shows in which a central character is driven by a broader plot arc to travel the highways and byways of the USA, encountering people. That’s a diverse genre that includes The Fugitive, The Incredible Hulk and Kung-Fu. In the first episode Charlie is embroiled in a death at a casino and, at the end, has to go on the run to avoid the vengeance of some pwerful people. This is the pretext for her being in a different location each episode working for cash in some relatively low-level job.

Where the show touches more on its more genre-adjacent antecedents (eg. the Bill Bixby Incredible Hulk) is that Charlie has one special power: she is a human lie detector and can reliably spot when somebody is bullshitting. That strains credulity a little but perhaps less than the trail of dead people that Charlie has encountered. Eight different workplaces so far and we are already more than eight dead people.

OK but is it any good? The nature of the show is that each episode is its own short story about why people try to kill other people (they don’t always succeed). Greed, jealousy, and revenge all play a role. The quality of the episodes depends very much on the individual story and guest stars. The most recent one, Episode 8, which features Nick Nolte as an ageing special effects artist specialising in stop-motion (based in part on Phil “Mad God” Tippet and featuring Tippet’s work) is one I really enjoyed. Others (eg “Rest in Metal” and “Time of the Monkey”) are a lot more mixed.

Lyonne is excellent in all of them but the better episode are often where she is upstaged by the supporting cast and the often absurd plots. It’s not always funny but there’s a campness to the whole show that asks the audience to suspend disbelief and enjoy the absurdity. Rian Johnson’s association with murder mystery is more famously with the two Knives Out films but Poker Face has a very different vibe to it.

There are two more episodes to go and I’ll do a ranking/mini-review of them when the whole series has finished. I’m enjoying the whole thing though.


49 responses to “A preliminary review of Poker Face”

    • Well, even if TV cops are unusually good at that, there’s a qualitative difference here because Charlie’s power is 100% accurate, doesn’t have any notion of degree, and is always on– so 1. if it doesn’t signal, she can be absolutely sure the person is telling the truth, and 2. it often works as a plot driver when she doesn’t yet have any reason to think there’s even a mystery, but gets a signal from some person’s random remark, and then had to decide if it’s worth wondering about or if it’s just one of the million trivial lies people tell all the time.

      Liked by 1 person

      • There’s another sly use of genre-ish rule-based plotting that shows up in the first few episodes– I’m not sure if the show has stuck to it, since I’m only 4 episodes in(*). Early on, when someone is explaining to Charlie how to avoid being tracked down by her pursuer– based on personal experience with a stalker– they mention that one time they carelessly used an ATM card and the stalker showed up 4 hours later. Charlie, being sometimes hilariously literal-minded (I really enjoy how Lyonne plays her weird mix of logic and illogic), decides that this means she has exactly a 4-hour grace period in every such case. Which makes no sense, except– at least the next time such a thing happens and we’re able to note the time– that turns out to be accurate.

        Liked by 1 person

      • it’s 100% accurate with one caveat: if the person telling her something believes it to be true, then it won’t go off even if Charlie herself knows it to not to be the truth

        Liked by 1 person

  1. The “character traveling from town to town and finding nefarious doings” goes back a long way. Hammett’s “Continental Op” (no name ever given) was a Pinkerton, so sometimes was dispatched, but that was his thing. Jack Reacher wanders.

    I read a series on KU (checks…) entitled “Cozy Up…”, wherein the lead character is in Witness Protection for ratting out his biker gang, and thus has to periodically change his name and move, doing random jobs. The one set at Christmas in a dying Midwestern mall, where he had to be Santa and he and his elf assistant stumble across financial skullduggery and mild violence was particularly amusing. Also he has a cat he insists go with him, much to the FBI’s annoyance. Worth if if you have KU. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B09K9572FD/ref=kinw_myk_ro_title

    Let us not forget the most successful serial killer in TV history: Jessica Fletcher. I know a few mystery writers, and they do not stumble across a murder 25 times a year.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hammett had been a Pinkerton. The Op worked for Continental.

      [Also, elsethread, mentioning Route 66 as the picaresque TV show par excellence. And The Littlest Hobo!]

      Liked by 2 people

      • Ahh, The Littlest Hobo. Also known as ‘one of the ways to identify a Canadian’. (Yes, I know it did get broadcast elsewhere too, but not anywhere near as much.)

        Definitely a classic example of ‘let’s do a traveling show so we can have new cast and cheap locations every week’: literally the only regular cast member was the dog.


          • Rocket Robin Hood was also an example of ‘how to do a half hour show despite only creating about ten minutes of new limited animation every week’. The little thirty second ‘cast page’ segments just kept getting repeated…

            My favourite memory associated with the show was much more recent, though, late 200x sometime. Bunch of us at a science fiction convention, fading embers of a room party in one of the hotel suites (so TV was in a separate room from the beds), we were watching whatever was on TV when Rocket Robin Hood came on, and a lot of us started laughing. A friend from Ottawa who had been mostly passed out in the other part of the suite woke up.

            Friend: *opens door and shuffles in* What are you watching?
            Me: Rocket Robin Hood.
            Friend: *strangled sound in back of throat* *shuffles back and closes door*

            Yeah, it’s pretty infamous amongst a certain age range. Very definitely ‘chocolate frosted sugar bombs’ fare.

            Liked by 1 person

        • I think it was Denver’s KWGN that was airing it when I saw it. I was seeing the older run of the show. Late-ish 60s, probably. I went looking for the show on YouTube, some time back, and only then learned the existence of the newer (and possibly more popular) version of the show.

          When Corner Gas paid tribute, though, they seemed to be referring to ‘my’ version. (Brent’s friend Hank Yarbo thinks he sees T.L.H. Episode title: “The Littlest Yarbo”)


  2. I’m old enough to remember watching Colombo in first run. It was on a rotation with MacMillan and Wife, a forgettable Rock Hudson/Susan Saint James vehicle, and McCloud, a ridiculously silly fish out of water detective story with Dennis Weaver playing a western lawman on long term loan to the NYPD. Cowboys in New York got a lot more of the rotation than Colombo.

    I like Natasha Lyonne and loved Colombo. They aren’t really comparable. I think a large part of it is time. Colombo was a movie with a much longer runtime. Once Poker Face has the crime set up, there really isn’t much time left for solving it. It would greatly benefit from being extended to an hour and a half.

    But I haven’t seen that mustard yellow typeface in years.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Rod Serling’s Night Gallery was also part of that rotation – far and away the most important part for me, although I also really liked Columbo.

      Liked by 1 person

      • NBC had two or three different “wheel series” usually featuring four different series rotating through the same time slot, usually with movie-length episodes but sometimes not. Originally McCloud (and Night Gallery) was part of one wheel while Columbo/McMillan & Hec Ramsey (I think) was part of another. I think McCloud ended up in the Columbo wheel rather quickly and that wheel ended up being the only one to run for a significant amount of time (the NBC Sunday night mystery movie). In the later years that wheel featured four series: Columbo/McCloud/McMillan plus one other that rarely lasted for more than one season.


        • The original anthology format was Four In One, with Night Gallery, The Psychiatrist, McCloud and San Francisco International Airport. After the first season Night Gallery flew solo and McCloud joined McMillan and Wife and Columbo in the NBC Mystery Movie anthology, which proved much more successful.

          Liked by 1 person

            • One of the more popular non-Sunday wheel shows was Banacek which lasted two seasons and was renewed for a third before George Peppard backed out of it reportedly because he didn’t want his recent ex (Elizabeth Ashley) getting money from it.


                • Ah, after all these years, my question about why Banacek was gone is answered.

                  The mysteries were great. Peppard got an award for presenting Polish guys as rich, cultured, smart and irresistible to women — it was the heyday of the “Polack joke”. I met the guy who played his chauffeur 10-15 years later and he was thrilled I remembered, what with so few episodes.


              • That was the Wednesday Mystery Movie. I loved Banacek (thought he was cool, with the turtleneck and all) and can’t remember anything else in the rotation.


    • I’ve often thought that’s one of the advantages of the old Mystery Movie — the added time gave them more flexibility with the formula.
      I thoroughly enjoyed McMillan and Wife, which I’ve been working through on DVD. Ridiculous in various ways — having to combine Rock Hudson as a top cop with the formula for a husband-and-wife mystery created problems — but usually fun. And Susan St. James was a big crush of mine back in the day.
      I never caught McCloud but I have the DVDs in my Netflix queue to get to eventually.


        • John Schuck as Sgt. Enright was my favorite. In one episode, he’s called upon to play the victim in a reconstruction of a crime, and really distinguishes himself. Fun to think that scene got him his own series later, but I’m sure it was more like dozens of scenes that did that.


          • He’s the center of one of my favorite episodes, “Cop of the Year,” in which the evidence is overwhelming he shot down his ex while they’re alone in a locked room (spoiler: he didn’t do it!).


      • McMillan & Wife was sort of boring for me. St. James livened it up a bit but Hudson and Shuck were more than a bit stiff. Except for one scene I remember where Hudson invites himself to sit down at a table with some bad guys and tells them they’re going to stop their shenanigans and let him do his job in such a way that they can’t get a word in edgewise and then excuses himself before they can reply in any way. You can tell Hudson had fun with the scene and for me it was the single most memorable thing about the whole show.

        Liked by 1 person

        • For memorable, I’d go with the scene where Hudson — playing an underworld lookalike — and Nancy Walker tango. Due to the difference in their height it’s hysterical.


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