Natasha Lyonne as Charlie Cale in "Poker Face".

A Brilliant Performance on a Neglected Foundation — “Poker Face”

“Poker Face” is very good. The new mystery series won’t disappoint, but it doesn’t excel in all the ways it imagines either. Its technical elements are often gobsmacking and it boasts one of the best actors going today in Natasha Lyonne. It’s beautiful to watch, but it also tries to do so much with such a big name cast that it rides the line between several influences instead of choosing moments to drive one home. The result is a series that’s comforting much in the way of an 80s weekly mystery, but also suffers from the same key oversights.

Lyonne plays Charlie Cale, a cocktail waitress with the ability to tell when people are lying. She doesn’t know what the truth is, just that the lie exists and is worth investigating. She was blackballed at high-stakes poker tables, and trapped by a casino owner in a job that…well, she doesn’t hate it, but it also doesn’t mean she has real freedom.

After her friend Natalie is murdered for what she sees on a high roller’s laptop, Charlie starts digging into the cover-up. This transforms into Charlie going on the run, encountering a new mystery in a new location every episode.

One of the big draws of “Poker Face” is its ridiculous guest cast. Let me throw names for a full paragraph: Benjamin Bratt, Adrien Brody, Stephanie Hsu, Hong Chau, Ron Perlman, Chloe Sevigny, S. Epatha Merkerson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rhea Perlman, Ellen Barkin, Tim Blake Nelson, Tim Meadows, Tim Russ (lotta Tims), Luis Guzman, Clea DuVall, Jameela Jamil, Nick Nolte, John Ratzenberger, and Judith Light. Just to name a few.

The story happens right now, but the cinematography evokes 70s crime and spy dramas, with a lot of long zooms, close-ups through crowds, and conversations viewed from a low angle. The effect is one of being in places we shouldn’t – not so much a fly on the wall, but an observer noticing something is off from across the room. That makes for an experience much like Charlie’s.

The editing keeps a more modern pace, and the writing conveys information cleverly. Unlike many mysteries, we know the solution from the beginning. We see the crime, who does it, and what the motive is at the start of each episode. There’s nothing for us to guess. The fun of it is seeing how Charlie gets to the solution. Or at least it should be. Lyonne does her part, but the comedic writing pushes punchlines a little too hard at times when Lyonne could easily make a serious line funny without the help.

We know the solution for each mystery, so the tension in “Poker Face” often comes from a ticking clock. Charlie’s being tracked down in an age where everything we do is traced by dozens of sources. The moment she does anything that can get her noticed, she knows she only has a few hours to solve the case and get out of there.

The show’s less of a mystery and more about Charlie meeting different people along the way. She learns their stories and truncated dreams, does her best to realize some sort of justice for them, and moves on to the next place because no one’s doing the same for her. She’s a drifter and because those hunting her own the police in their town, she’s also got warrants. That means she can’t trust police enough to bring them in until she’s on her way out the door.

You’ve got the stylized technical prowess of a 70s drama going for broke, matched up to a show about meeting people across the country, starring name guest stars playing it as if they’re in a modern comedy of manners, housed within an 80s mystery showcase, and packed with extra jokes. That’s a lot of different things, all done very capably, but they don’t all fit smoothly into the space they’re given. “Poker Face” gets stuck presenting them all, instead of downshifting into the one that would serve moments in each episode best.

I believe this is a very good show, but it’s not because all these influences fuse together organically. They often don’t, and you desperately need a Robert Redford type who can glide over the gulfs between these genres with natural ease. That’s exactly the kind of actor Lyonne is.

Getting all these guest stars shifted through leaves many of them stuck in one of these multiple genres – and not always the one that fits them best. As much as the cavalcade of names sells, the series may’ve been better served by employing a healthier balance of character actors and guest stars from theater. They might’ve better inhabited their roles, and more of those roles feeling real is what you need in a show about traveling across the country and meeting so many different people.

This is an element that varies a lot by viewer. Some will really enjoy recognizable guest stars letting loose and playing it up. That’ll be the highlight of the show and a reason to keep on watching. Others will think too many of those roles become caricatures, and that’s exactly what you don’t want in a show meant to empathize with overlooked and marginalized people.

Showrunner Rian Johnson’s greatest strength is presenting you interesting character dynamics in stories that take place inside a kind of beautiful plot snow globe – as in “Knives Out”, “Glass Onion”, or “The Brothers Bloom”. The ensembles are kept tight and we focus on the interplay between a few characters and their accentuated traits.

That same strength doesn’t serve well in a story about coming across different people all the time. The tendency is to create a new plot snow globe every episode. Even if they’re beautiful, however, that runs counter to the show’s intended heart. Those pristinely crafted, perfectly encapsulated plots deliver worlds that are so precious they rely on caricature comedy to make them reverberate. They don’t serve stories about a bigger world full of people.

It’s hard to empathize with stunt-casted guest actors playing it up simply because that’s the aesthetic. It would have been easy to empathize with character and stage actors bringing it down to detail because that’s the intent we were promised.

Take a show like “Leverage: Redemption”, which is pretty cheesy, often over-the-top, plays its plots loose, and can’t compare to “Poker Face” from a technical standpoint – but this is the one thing it nails. It never loses sight of its intent and its sense of responsibility toward that intent. It guards that intent of empathizing with and representing the marginalized with determination. “Poker Face” may be more impressive in every other way, but it drops this core aspect of what it tells us it wants to do right out of the gate. Its sheer technical and acting prowess can overcome that gap, but there’s still a sense of lacking something core.

Roger Ebert once wrote that a critic’s job ought to be judging something on what it wants to be rather than what the critic wants it to be. I’ve seen some reviews out there saying that “Poker Face” is good but doesn’t get to the level it could – in other words, it doesn’t become something greater that the critic wants. I’ve got no problem with it emulating 70s and 80s mystery shows and deciding that’s enough. That’s what it wants to be and it captures that beautifully. Those shows came with issues of treating the marginalized in offhand, broad, and stereotyped ways, though. We dismiss that as a feature of the times they were made – never mind that our procedural mysteries still do this religiously. “Poker Face” should break that aspect of the format, and it seems to want to challenge that aspect of the format, but when the marginalized are painted so broadly and become caricature, they become props in service of the plot instead of people the plot is there to fervently guard.

“Poker Face” promises empathy and has some great scenes that embody it…before consistently turning it into plot mechanic because there just isn’t room in between a half dozen genre influences and so many name guest stars. Something’s gotta give and it’s not going to be what makes the snow globe so pretty to look at. I disagree with the assessment that “Poker Face” could’ve been more. What it could have been – and at least what it tells us it wants to be – is a little bit less.

It doesn’t know when to stop and I wish this has been closer to Johnson’s approach of ‘what does the snow globe look like when we break it’, as in his “Brick”, “Looper”, or “The Last Jedi”. Those all take big genres with big concepts and a dozen influences while consistently drawing the plot down to the humanization of their characters and the personal decisions they make to effectively undermine their genre. That could have made “Poker Face” feel full, lively, and authentic instead of overly precious. Sometimes Johnson guards aesthetic over character, and sometimes he guards character over aesthetic. This is the first time I feel like he chose the wrong one for a project.

Like I said, I still believe the show is very good and well worth watching. To me, this is because it’s massively elevated – and maybe outright saved – by Lyonne’s rare ability to exist in all these genres at once with the most casual charm. “Poker Face” heavily leans on her ability to communicate empathy that shouldn’t have been cast aside, and to salvage punchlines that should’ve been.

Lyonne and the cinematography are worth the time investment, and that really is enough to turn an average show into a borderline-great one, but I have to admit a certain degree of resenting some of the choices the series makes. When you set out to represent the marginalized but turn them into caricature, you risk conveying that these people are props who are ultimately not worth paying attention to as much as the lead character is…and that’s an attitude that marginalized people have to fight in real life. I don’t think that’s intentional on Johnson’s part. It’s a good intention that misses the mark because certain aspects of this genre are dismissed as elements that existed due to their time period, and not inherent elements that can only be confronted by making that change the focus.

“Poker Face” is being compared a lot to “Columbo” and “Murder, She Wrote”. While Peter Falk and Angela Lansbury boasted a ton of charm, they also had some exceptionally crafted series to support them. I think the closer comparisons here are “Simon & Simon”, “Campion”, or “The Mentalist”. Gerald McRaney, Peter Davison, and Simon Baker had series where everything functioned and the mysteries were good enough, but really you watched because the lead had so much natural charm it raised everyone else’s, and even made up for a muddled storytelling focus.

You can watch “Poker Face” on Peacock.

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