There are few things about the realm of television more true than the fact that there must always be new series focusing on crime, and while there are often new efforts that simply stick to the mold created by classic shows, and ones that won’t die, there are always those that try to tip the genre on its head. Poker Face is not only a show about an utterly wild “investigator,” almost of PSYCH proportions, but it also throws out the seeming necessity of a supporting cast and/or setting.
Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne) works in a casino as we enter this adventure and her new boss, her old boss’ son, has just been made aware of her special gift, she’s a human lie detector. Said new boss, Sterling Frost Jr. (Adrien Brody), has a plan to use that to his advantage by getting Charlie to fleece a high-roller in a private game.
The scheme that takes us through the pilot upends Charlie’s life and winds up with her on the run, which sets in motion the grander scheme of the series. What follows is one of the most bizarre mixes of plot ideas television has ever seen, and creator Rian Johnson (and a lot of writers) uses the premise to spin episodic yarns that are somehow all the more engaging for their lack of connection to anything.
Adding to the curiosity of this “Kung Fu meets Columbo” are the oddities of form that the series presents its “cases” by letting the audience know who did it from the beginning, and Charlie not only isn’t the police, she can’t even call the police. The first is, at least for now, a mesmerizing device as events are played out without Charlie first and then revisited with her inserted into the moments we’ve already seen. The second adds a unique tension to the show because while Charlie may have the magic ability to know when people are lying, her real skill is figuring out how to deliver the comeuppance with nothing but her wits in her arsenal. Best of all, these facets become part of the overall, edge-of-your-seat whirlwind as Charlie is constantly digging her way through situations, because knowing someone is lying doesn’t necessarily give you a lot of information.
Once you’re a few episodes in, and you’ve visited a sleepy town’s favorite BBQ and radio show combo, and a spot on the highway that isn’t even “there” except for a gas station and a Subway, things take on an almost Twilight Zone feel with a quick introduction to the guest stars, “community” du jour, and the improbable turn of events that will drive our examination this week.
In the end, the show moves from a curious con game with an impossible ace up your sleeve to a series of unlikely and baffling cases showcasing Charlie’s abilities and incredibly bad luck. It’s the strangest mash of ideas, genres, and theories to come along in a while and they truly seem like an effort to hook audiences by putting together everything you can think of that won’t really hook anyone in some “whole is greater…” dare.
This is Johnson at his best, as evidenced by Glass Onion, which is also only barely about figuring out the whodunit. Here, it’s all about showing off the characters and conversations with Charlie serving so many roles for the storytelling that you can’t list them. Lyonne, in a character that is not completely removed from her turn in Russian Doll (also a great show), is so solid in this role that it becomes elusive to nail down where the best notes show up. It is a role that is deceptive in its difficulty because it is so heavily-centered on her reactions. Her character is cobbled together from a life of living with her talent, and what that has thrust upon her, and delivering that person reacting to the people and circumstances of increasingly strange crimes is nearly impossible, but subtle. Lyonne not only manages it, but in a way that makes you think you’re watching your 30th episode of her doing it instead of your third.
It’s the most wickedly fun show in ages, and not just a show that you will want to binge, but one that you will almost instantly hope never ends.