It was a foregone conclusion that I was going to at least like Poker Face — I love Rian Johnson’s murder mysteries; Natasha Lyonne’s got a “presence” that makes you eager to like everything she does; it’s a revival of the Columbo-style mystery; and it’s got a long list of guest appearances from actors I like a lot, and also Adrian Brody1To be fair, he has to play a reprehensible sleazebag in the first episode, and he sells it so well, it’s as if it comes naturally to him.. But I never got around to watching it until my ticket to Halloween Horror Nights got me a subscription to Peacock as a bonus.
(There’s no real point to that detail; it’s just a signifier of what life was like in 2023, where streaming networks and synergy within huge multimedia companies means I have to go to a theme park to watch a show I’m interested in).
I finally watched the first episode tonight, and it nails everything I expected it to. The opening titles alone were enough to set the tone, even if they hadn’t been set on top of shots of a casino seemingly stuck in a perpetual state of mid-to-late-70s-ness. It’s a perfect setting for a series concept that itself seems to be stuck halfway in the past.
The main character suggests a call back to Jim Rockford — mostly in her sense of humor in the face of being constantly targeted by bad guys and misfortune — and of course, the format calls back to Columbo. But calling it just an homage would be selling it short. You could make a very, very good pastiche of 1970s detective series. Or you could take the premise of “the audience knows the killer(s) from the start,” and experiment with it in loads of interesting ways. Poker Face does both, breaking down its inspirations into their component parts, and then using them to make something new.
The result feels both timeless but also completely contemporary. In that regard, it’s a lot like Knives Out, which retained the feel of one of Agatha Christie’s classic mysteries about a brilliant detective solving a murder in the creepy mansion of a rich family, but made it into a contemporary satire of how rich people are just awful and immigrants are mistreated. Or Glass Onion, which captured the feel of Death on the Nile-style mysteries about rich people on vacation in an exotic locale, and made it into a contemporary satire of how rich tech bros are just awful. Or even The Last Jedi, which tried to break Star Wars stories down into its core themes of light vs dark, making it less about powerful lineages and more about “normal” people finding power within themselves. And also a side trip to a casino planet to show how rich aliens are just awful.
One of the things that made Knives Out so interesting was that it went so hard on the setting and mood of a classic murder mystery, including Daniel Craig’s increasingly over-the-top performance as an eccentric, brilliant detective, but still kept the setting firmly in the present day. Like Poker Face, it takes on the appearance of familiar stories from a time before cell phones, and then makes smart phones and other devices central to the plot.
For one thing, this keeps it feeling relevant. A period piece can obviously have thematic relevance to a modern audience, but there’s still something inherently distancing about presenting a story that happened in the past. There are lots of sequences in Poker Face that feel as if they could’ve been lifted directly from 1970s television2Including the appearances of Special Guest Stars, until one of the characters says the f-word, or there’s mention of the dark web and child pornography, or a plot point depends on cloud photo sharing. And unlike something like Murder She Wrote, whose attempts to be modern and relevant were sometimes laughably misguided, here it’s just an acknowledgement that technology is commonplace. There’s no longer anything special about it, and it would be foolish to avoid acknowledging it3Or trying to come up with a tortured explanation of why the mystery wouldn’t be solved in two seconds if everybody just had a cell phone..
But I think the more interesting thing it does is show that these stories aren’t just copying from their inspirations, but drilling down to an innate understanding of what made the inspirations work so well. Poker Face‘s first episode is full of the types of moments that make Rian Johnson’s best work so fun. He starts playing with our assumptions almost immediately after the crime has been established, leaving us thinking we know when a flashback is set, surprising us with details that set it earlier, and then having it catch up with the “expected” timeline at a crucial moment, when the We Know More Than Charlie Does dramatic irony is at its highest.
Then it spends the rest of the episode exploring everything it can do with the Columbo format. Again like Knives Out, you’re simultaneously wondering when is going to be the moment the “killer” is found out, while rooting for the detective to put all the pieces together. And the clues are perfectly placed, with scenes drawing your attention to details but never making it obvious you’re being shown a clue, and then delivering on all the satisfying of course! moments as you see those story beats knocked off, one by one4For example: that’s why she mentioned seeing a dick pic on the television!. It all feels so natural, you don’t notice how efficient the storytelling is. There’s no scene that’s wasted.
And one extra thing that I like is that it’s just confidently funny. At least from the first episode, it seems a stretch to call it a “comedy,” but there was at least one moment that made me laugh out loud. When asked where to put a secret camera so that it wouldn’t be noticed, Charlie, who hasn’t been paying close attention, casually says to use the lamps in the room. The camera immediately cuts to a wide-shot of the room, where we see for the first time that it’s full of lamps.
- 1To be fair, he has to play a reprehensible sleazebag in the first episode, and he sells it so well, it’s as if it comes naturally to him.
- 2Including the appearances of Special Guest Stars
- 3Or trying to come up with a tortured explanation of why the mystery wouldn’t be solved in two seconds if everybody just had a cell phone.
- 4For example: that’s why she mentioned seeing a dick pic on the television!