Discover more from Toisto
Poker Face is the chillest, coolest, and best written show of the year
★★★★★ | Poker face? I hardly know 'er!
When I kicked off Poker Face, Rian Johnson’s first TV series, of which he writes and directs four episodes, it was with great expectations.
I am a massive fan of Johnson’s entire filmography, I adore Natasha Lyonne, and there isn’t a single trope out there that tickles my soul like the wandering good guy making a difference in the lives of others.
It’s astounding that Poker Face doesn’t just meet those lofty desires, but exceeds them with a show that is delightfully bizarre, droll, and oddly wholesome for something that deals with murder.
Led by the stunning Lyonne, Poker Face tells the story of Charlie Cale, a self-proclaimed human lie detector, who just knows when someone is not telling the truth.
But, in a clever twist, that’s not the kind of superpower you’d expect. People lie all the time about the smallest things, Charlie bemoans. It’s figuring out when they’re lying about something that matters that’s the trick.
When her friend is killed in suspicious circumstances, Charlie can’t help but stick her nose into matters. Her perseverance and innate sense of justice send her on the run through the blue highways of the American heartland. There, she meets a motley crew of outcasts, belligerents, and people living small lives with big dreams.
The series unfolds almost like an anthology. Every episode is a different town with a new cast. Only Charlie and her pursuer (a delightfully evil Benjamin Bratt) remain a constant.
Each time we’re shown the crime right off the bat. We know the who and why before Charlie does. The fun comes from seeing the way Charlie puts it all together, and how she brings the perpetrators to justice.
Charlie’s not a cop, after all, there’s only so much she can do.
It’s that power dynamic which makes the series so rewarding. Charlie is beyond an underdog. She’s fallen through the cracks so thoroughly she has hit bedrock. She can’t call the cops, and she doesn’t have backup. Instead, her brand of poetic justice is as cobbled together as the evidence she collects.
It helps that the crimes themselves are small, even as they mean the world to those they effect. People lie, steal, and kill for the most meaningless thing. There’s an innate sense of tragedy to it all. A senselessness that borderlines on absurdity. Which, in turn, makes Charlie such a compelling figure.
Like a knight errant, she rides into town and attempts to make things better for those who can’t leave. It’s a hugely romantic notion, seen through the grimy Tom Waits-style glasses and peppered with Bruce Springsteen-esque flourishes. They’re all towns full of losers, except nobody is pulling out of there.
The hugely episodic structure allows for the talented writers and directors to play around with an immensely malleable genre. Some episodes are considerably darker, while others teeter on the edge of slapstick. A particular highlight sees Charlie traveling with a racist Jack Russell Terrier.
But there’s never a sense of discord. The big picture feels coherent at every turn, and Bratt’s ticking clock assassin keeps us aware of the danger.
Instead, Poker Face feels like a throwback not just in style, but structure. It’s the kind of return to a simpler, better time of television where a weekly show was a thing to savor. The kind of event you waited for not just for the viewing, but so that you could talk about it with friends the day after.
At the same time, Poker Face feels timeless. There’s a sense like everything has come to a standstill in this world, even as the characters reference pop-culture at the drop of a hat. It has grit and texture to it like a Robert Altman film. Something you just want to hang out with for hours on end.
It’s the best series on streaming right now, and considering what a stacked year of amazing shows we’ve had, that’s saying something.
Poker Face premieres on SkyShowtime with 4 episodes on September 15th, followed by weekly releases.
Just one more thing. This blog here is free, but subscribing makes more people aware of us, so I’d appreciate a follow.