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  • Writer's pictureNoah Yard

From the Creator of Knives Out Comes a Brilliant New Crime Show; "Poker Face." (Episode 1-5 Review)


From the brilliant mind that brought us Knives Out and its sequel Glass Onion, Rian Johnson brings us a TV show, Poker Face, in collaboration with Natasha Lyonne (Russian Doll, Orange is the New Black.) It’s a zany weekly crime show, available on Stan in

Australia.


The series follows Charlie Cale, a cocktail waitress at a very popular casino in Vegas. After an incident with the Casino’s boss forces her to make a quick exit, Charlie goes on the run, in a chase across America.


Her path to safety, however, is hindered every week by a murder. Charlie has a knack, nay, a gift for knowing when someone is lying, and a great sense of right and wrong, which obviously means when she comes in contact with these murders, she attempts to solve them.


Now, this show follows a different format to many police procedurals or detective shows/movies like Knives Out where the clues slowly unravel the truth. No, this show is a “Howcatchem,” an actual term used to refer to an inverted mystery story. This means, at the start of each show, you see the murder and who did it. This might seem boring, but the fun comes from Charlie slowly uncovering these mysteries, finding the perfect clues, and presenting her evidence which usually ends in some sort of capture or trouble for the perpetrator.


The crimes, all murders, are whacky, to say the least, almost unbelievable, but still a great watch. We find out usually in a rewind of the events that Charlie has been present at each and every crime scene already. The score, created by Nathan Johnson, the creator's cousin, brilliantly uses banjo music to introduce her to the story and to each episode. She usually, luckily, finds a rapport with the victims. These encounters, like her relationship with a young drummer of a famous band, show great compassion from Charlie. She cares for people, a lot, and her need to solve these crimes, I believe, comes from her great set of morals and innate sense of empathy for the outsider.


Lyonne plays her part brilliantly, there’s something in her eyes that lets you know that these victims mean something to her. And her fury at the perpetrators, her anger at the injustice of it all, is so admirable it could bring you to tears.


Of course, this is Natasha Lyonne we are talking about, so there are always some obvious similarities between all of her characters. The thick accent, the shocking mop of blonde/red hair, her dark sense of humour and her penchant for booze and cigarettes. She does things her own way. It works in the time and life-bending Russian Doll, and it worked in her breakout role in Orange. She’s gritty, she’s imperfect and she’s messy. In the first episode, she says: “I'm still pretty much a dumbass, and I'm doing just fine.” That was her mindset before going on her journey and while she may fumble and make mistakes, she turns out to be no regular dumbass.


Each episode is dripping with style. In the first episode, in the slimy casino, I wasn’t quite sure what time period the show was set in, the 70’s maybe because the outfits and setting were so brilliant. Then Natasha pulls out a modern-looking iPhone sitting on a lawn chair outside her trailer and the ruse falls. But each episode has its own flavour. Episode 4 has it’s metalhead aesthetic. The band, the crowd, and even Charlie’s clothes change as she works for the band in that episode. It really nails down the feeling that yes, there’s a storyline being carried through here, throughout the season BUT, each episode is entirely its own affair as well.


Many have noticed a striking resemblance to the famous “Columbo,” the 70’s hit show starring Peter Falk, as this show was also a howcatchem. But there’s other stuff too, the personality, even her accent sounds like him. Johnson himself has admitted that the show takes great inspiration for the show. Now I’ve watched a couple of scenes from Columbo, not full episodes, but enough to get an idea of the resemblance. And it’s there, from the thick New York accent (that’s Natasha Lyonne’s signature at this point), to the presentation of evidence as if she’s pulling it out of thin air as she speaks, there’s a resemblance. Then there’s the collection of famous guest stars, Chlöe Sevigny, Judith Light, S. Epatha Merkerson. Columbo was also well known for its presentation of special guests. The main point of difference is that Detective Columbo works for the LAPD, while Charlie Cale is just a good samaritan on the run.


These glaringly obvious connections don’t take away from the fact this show is fun and important. Because at this point in 2023, who remembers Columbo? Even if stuff is lifted, it’s something the modern audience hasn’t seen before. Used to the reveal at the end, this is the beginning of the inverted detective story.


It sets itself apart with Lyonne’s unique personality, combined with the wackiness of the crimes and criminals. Let’s take episode five (the most recent one), for example. You would never expect two old ladies, one a paraplegic (played by the delightful Judith Light), to pull off a grand murder plot. I won’t spoil it but let’s just say there are elements within that episode that push the boundaries of believability a bit, but somehow, it’s all pulled together and just works. It’s hilarious. There are tragic deaths as well but episode five really takes the cake. Lyonne does a lot of the heavy lifting to bring it back down to earth.


Poker Face looks like it has good staying power, as it has a fresh but familiar format for the times and panache, style, excellent writing, and dialogue, (“I’m not a cop… Bitch.”) Hopefully we get to see lots of crimes solved by “not” detective Charlie Cale.


Pokerface is available to watch in Australia, weekly in Australia, and Peacock in the US.

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