I’m going to be the lone dissenter here and say that this wasn’t a great show. Poker Face is ostensibly a program that focuses on details, yet it’s the plot holes and details that kind of unwind it as a piece of television. That, at times, makes it verging-on-boring. And other times just pushes credulity in a way that fights against the genre it represents. Ultimately, I think it — not unlike Rian Johnson’s most recent film, Glass Onion — relies on the audience being dazzled by stars and stimuli to mask the fact the storytelling is kind of mushy and, frankly, half-assed.
I suppose some of this will be spoiler-y, but this isn’t really the type of series that relies on an overarching plot to drive the narrative. But let’s start with the conceit. Charlie Cale (a anglicized Natasha Lyonne) has the ability to tell when people are lying. By just hearing them say something, she can detect something in their statements that ticks in her brain if the statement is true or false. Fine. It’s a superpower, I suppose. Like Wonder Woman’s lasso or whatever. We’re never told where this comes from, though we’re given a hint in the final episode as to its destructive power in her youth. Again, fine, we’ll just accept that as a thing that is 100% foolproof and part of the DNA of the show.
The part that makes absolutely no sense is how we find Charlie when we are first introduced to her. She’s a cocktail waitress in a out-of-the-way Nevada casino. Employed by some scary casino owner (Ron Perlman), who put her there after catching her using her power to win traveling poker tourneys around the country. So, let me get this straight. This dude catches her using her power — not cheating, mind you, but using a god-given ability — and blackballs her at tournaments and turns her into a cocktail waitress? What? Not only does the first part of this sentence not make any sense, but the punishment is not to come and stand in the crow’s nest and pick out cheaters in his own casino, but to sling drinks to other drunks… It makes no sense. And is an especially egregious plot point when [and here comes a spoiler] said casino owner spends over a year chasing her down (which comprises the whole first season), only to bring her back to offer to pay her half-a-mill to do that exact job for one meeting. In other words, he could have used her human lie-detector ability from the very start, but instead doesn’t think to do it before he spends gobs of time and money to do just that? Yeah, no.
Putting all of that aside, we work up this whole scenario that is also a bit janky that gets Charlie out on the road, running for her life and visiting a new and interesting murder scene each and every week. Well, not every week in her world, but every week in ours. Essentially everywhere she ends up, a murder takes place. She’s the Jessica Fletcher of unfortunate events. So the show starts of with terrific action, and what feels like will be a through-line for the season with the casino’s fixer, Cliff LeGrand (Benjamin Bratt), but he is all but forgotten about until the finale. Despite his menace being the inciting event for her going on the run. But, like everything on this show, it’s just a mechanism for setting up the week-to-week murder mystery that Charlie is asked to solve. And, as such, makes the show feel weirdly inorganic and inconsistent depending on the weekly crime and the actors/directors taking the reigns.
This is all going to sound like complaining. And I understand that. It’s not as if there aren’t moments in this show that are decent (like Lyonne hanging out with her gravel-voiced doppelgänger, Nick Nolte). But they mostly revolve around Lyonne. Thing is, she’s not on screen for large chunks of the show. Because the whole “trick” of the show is that we are shown the characters involved in the murder without showing Charlie’s involvement in the lives of the murderer and murderee until after the murder occurs. Because she’s always moving around the country, taking odd jobs, she could be anything from week to week. We know she’s in the background somewhere while things are unfolding, but we don’t know exactly where until we’ve gone through the machinations of the murder. This whole thing takes a few episodes to get used to. And it’s probably something you either like. Or, in my case, don’t. Because if the story that leads to the murder is silly or boring or nonsensical, then you’re stuck watching a group of characters you’ve never met be boring, silly or nonsensical until Lyonne shows up on screen. All of this might be fine if the circumstances of the murders weren’t — in most of the cases — so asinine. Or stupid. Or unnecessary. And perhaps the murders are intentionally goofy, but I don’t think that’s the case.
Like a guy murders his own brother after the brother decides he can no longer be partnered in the family BBQ business because he watched Okja. He kills him via smoker in order to make it look like the world’s dumbest and most unlikely suicide. Yes, instead of talking to his brother and working out a settlement for the partnership, he just jumps to pre-meditated murder. What? In another case a couple of actor rivals develop what turns out to be a reeeeeally long con and conspire to murder one of their rich spouses to presumably take her money after she’s dead. By faking being rivals (for years?) and then hoping, after faking a heart attack on stage, that the scared spouse will run up on stage, fall through as loose trap door and die by striking her head on the door’s opening? A really terrible plan, and one that seems completely out of character for the woman they are hoping will all-of-a-sudden become a concerned wife. But it goes off without a hitch. A washed-up rock star kills her erratic, freelance drummer for a single song he’s written that she thinks will propel these middle-aged rockers back to the top of the charts. Even though we all know that’s not how the record industry works, nor how bands put stuff out. Plus, we hear the song, and it is most definitely not a “hit.” Not to mention, she could have just taken a photo of the song he’s written down, transcribed it as if she’d written it (which is what she does eventually) and just blown off the drummer as the kook he is and had the rest of the band vouch for the fact she wrote it. Instead of, you know, killing the dude. Even when Charlie herself is the target of a murder, the murderer fails — twice! — to check if she has a pulse. Dude literally runs her over with a car and sticks her in a murder hole under a tree. She comes back. He stabs her, sticks her in the same hole. And, again, not dead. Seriously. Though Joseph Gordon-Levitt does play a pretty convincing finance-bro douche-nozzle.
Almost all of the murders or attempted murders have these mechanics that take a lot of coincidence and/or leaps in logic. Most of the murders don’t, in fact, have to be murders at all and can feel in some of the stories like a real stretch. I think the show is a good idea conceptually, but because each week is almost a self-contained murder mystery, the stories themselves have to be decent. And when they’re slow, or hokey or just plain dumb, that ends up bogging down the series overall. Despite the presence of some really great actors, and a great lead in Lyonne. It needed to be better. It wanted to be better. But because the plots seemed almost tossed-off at times, it fails on most levels to be fun and compelling. Like if it leaned into funny, maybe I’d be less focused on its lack of focus on details. But because it isn’t, in fact, very funny on a week-to-week basis, I have to take it at face value (no pun intended) and assume they were trying to treat these mysteries seriously. Or at the very least give us a little bit of surprise from week to week in terms of how Charlie gets to the truth of things. Instead, the writers completely telegraph everything and kind of leave us with a shrug when justice, in whatever form, inevitably comes for the murderer. They try just a little bit in a couple of the episodes that mixed the approach up just a tad, but most of the time the mechanics came off as weak tea and even a little dull.
It’s funny. I’m looking back at my review of Glass Onion, and many of the complaints I’m leveling here are exactly the ones I had with that Johnson endeavor. Maybe I’m coming into these things expecting sophistication and surprises and twists. And maybe that’s just not his brand. He’s giving us pop-mystery. He’s fine with clues and things being super-obvious. He’s fine with details being fudged. This isn’t supposed to be hard-boiled detective stuff. This isn’t supposed to be Law & Order, or even House or whatever. This is supposed to be technicolor fun that everyone can enjoy. Grandma doesn’t need intrigue or “a-ha” moments. Your aunt doesn’t need to be like, “Damn, I did not see that coming!” Nope, they’re fine with Lyonne coming in doing her schtick for a few minutes, a group of talented actors being goofy and the murderer basically getting his or her just desserts. I’ve never watched Columbo, but maybe that’s how that goes on that show, too. Whatever the case, I hope they think about re-tooling a little bit in season two to involve some more Bratt (who is great), some more variation in perspective and, honestly, some more work on the murder stories themselves to bring them up to 2023 standards.