By Kaleena Rivera | TV | February 1, 2023 |
By Kaleena Rivera | TV | February 1, 2023 |
Confession: I have never seen Columbo. I’ve been alive long enough to know it was a detective show, but my knowledge ends there. Because everyone and their mother has been quick to compare Poker Face, Glass Onion director Rian Johnson’s first major foray into television, to the ’70s era detective series, it seemed prudent for me to watch some old clips on YouTube. I learned two things pretty quickly:
1). Peter Falk had humor and charm for days.
2). Natasha Lyonne is absolutely the rightful heir to the gruff detective legacy.
Johnson and Lyonne’s (who serves as both Johnson’s collaborator and executive producer for the series) deference for shows like Columbo instantly lends the sensibility of a bygone era despite it being set very much in the present day. It helps that there’s a timeless quality to the individual locales (a Route 66 truck stop, a BBQ stand, etc.) that disgraced poker player-turned-beer-swilling amateur investigator Charlie Cale (Lyonne) finds herself in as she flees from the Reno casino boss she infuriates in episode one after foiling a murder/theft plot. With no particular destination or plan in mind, aside from simply staying alive, Charlie stumbles from one destination to another. From there the formula makes itself known: our protagonist’s latest acquaintance winds up on the wrong side of a seemingly perfect murder—whether as the wrongly accused or the deceased—and it’s up to her to figure out what exactly happened.
It’s certainly a recipe for entertainment, especially given the opportunity to bring on a host of guest stars ranging from Dascha Polanco, Lil Rel Howery, Hong Chau, Chloë Sevigny, and many more, though its formulaic nature means that surprises are few and far between. Once the body is discovered, we know that within the next fifty minutes, Charlie is going to use her astute powers of observation (combined with the uncanny ability to spot a lie, which the show thankfully uses sparingly) to determine who the killer is. This is where I suspect the rubber will meet the road, as the repetitive nature of this updated cozy murder mystery will either appeal to audiences who find themselves averse to any real shocks in favor of justice consistently being served or will quickly bore viewers who crave more variety in their storytelling.
What partially feeds the monotony is the odd release schedule, with Peacock premiering the first four episodes before reverting to a weekly schedule for the remaining six episodes. I’m already not a fan of the binge model of consuming television; apply it to a “mystery-of-the-week” style series and it quickly starts feeling like watching a copy of a copy, with names and faces blurring together after a few hours. A true week-to-week format would at least allow each mystery to exist independently of one another and allow space for the micro twists and turns that do exist within each episode.
The true saving grace is Lyonne herself, who once again cashes in on her gravelly charisma to bring us an unwitting gumshoe who can’t help but tug at strings even when it puts her at risk—the bad guy, namely hired goon Cliff LeGrand (played by a villainous Benjamin Bratt) is never far behind. What makes her Charlie Cale so refreshing is that she isn’t out to solve crimes because she feels compelled to show her brilliance or to best anybody but because she’s a genuinely nice person. Cynicism and compassion are rarely allowed to exist simultaneously in fiction, yet Charlie does it with ease. For a woman who wants little more than to drink a cold beer and nap in the sun, she has a knack for ending up in other people’s business. Charlie knows her life on the run can’t afford her any lasting emotional connections, but she can’t help herself from getting to know the folks she encounters on her travels. In short, she’s a crabby extrovert, someone who wishes to keep people at bay but who nonetheless craves to hear their stories.
Though I wish Poker Face had the stylish verve that was teased in trailers, the first four episodes were lively enough to keep my attention, though it falls short of appointment viewing. If you’re looking for an edgy crime series, you’ll likely be disappointed by most of the PG-13 criminal antics that take place. But for those who yearn for a throwback to yesteryear, you’ll likely have a good time cuddled up at home with this remixed sleuth series. Beer is optional, of course.
The first four episodes of Poker Face are available to stream on Peacock. The remaining six episodes will be available on Thursdays.
Kaleena Rivera is the TV Editor for Pajiba. When she isn’t still laughing over the veterinarian (played by Nancy Lemenager) scene in episode three, she can be found on Twitter here.