Better Later Than Never: Poker Face
There have been few actresses who have adapted better to the rise of streaming than Natasha Lyonne. After shooting to superstardom as a teenage actress in American Pie and building a superb indie resume in such marvelous movies as Slums of Beverly Hills and But I’m A Cheerleader, she spent the next decade being a part of some superb films but never so you’d notice. Then in 2013 she was cast in Orange is the New Black as Nicky and she’s never looked back.
She stayed with the series for its entire run, receiving an Emmy nomination for Best Guest Actress and sharing in the SAG award for Best Ensemble twice. Then in 2019, she officially became a hyphenate in one of the most dazzling productions of the last five years Russian Doll. Playing Nadia, a New Yorker who on her 36th birthday finds herself dying over and over and watching the world begin to erode around, Lyonne created one of the most dazzling works of genre-busting TV that even Peak TV is rarely capable of. She was nominated for writing, acting and producing the series in 2019 and would doubtless have gotten more attention had she not been nominated the same year as another equally astonishing women hyphenate Phoebe Waller-Bridge received the recognition she justifiably deserved for Fleabag. The pandemic and subsequent lockdown meant it was nearly three years before the second season of Russian Doll aired, but it was more than worth the wait as Nadia found herself traveling through time, trying to right the wrongs that were done to her by going back through her mother’s and grandmother’s lives. Few images have stuck with me more than Lyonne striding through the streets of 1980s New York, wearing a duster with a cigarette dangling from her lips, utterly unfazed by the weirdness around her.
Even the fact that she had been cast as the lead in yet another series was not quite enough to initially make me subscribe to Peacock. I did what I usually did, tried to track down DVDs of her series on eBay, but it increasingly became a fool’s errand. So last month, I decided to see how much of a headache it would be to subscribe to yet another streaming service, and when it involved less of a headache than it occasionally takes me to get on Apple or HBO Max, I paid the $5 a month to get it. Even then I might not have bothered if it now didn’t seem like a near certainty that her new series Poker Face as well as Lyonne, are likely to be major contenders for Emmys next month. Having seen the first two episodes Lyonne certainly deserves it if I not yet made judgment on the show.
Poker Face is ostensibly a procedural but its basically a love-letter to Lyonne’s incredible talent. One of the things I loved so much about Russian Doll was that Lyonne essentially was able to handle such complicated matters as time travel and time loops with the utter blasé attitude that one fundamentally expects of a Native New Yorker; I actually suggested after Season 2 that I could see her playing the next incarnation of Doctor Who and I’d be fine with it. Now Lyonne is essentially playing Columbo in everything in a series that creator Rian Johnson all but admits mugs it unabashedly: even the credits are filmed in a font that was used for Columbo when it first aired on NBC in the 1970s. The major difference is that Charlie Cale is not a detective and indeed doesn’t really want to solve the murders she keeps getting involved in. If anything, spending time trying to do so is actually making her life harder — and put her in this situation to begin with.
When we meet Charlie she’s a cocktail waitress at a casino that’s basically second hand and she’s been trying to stay off the radar for years. She has the innate ability to tell when someone is lying and years ago that helped her clean up at the poker tables. Then a casino owner learned what she was up to, broke her fingers and told her not to do it again. She’s been living the most normal life she can and she probably could have kept doing so had she not happened to be at the same casino where the man’s son was working (Adrian Brody)
The son, who is suffering in the reputation to his father, wants to fleece the biggest whale in the casino who isn’t gambling enough and he wants to use Charlie to do it. Charlie goes along with it, but while she is her closest friend ends up being murdered. Her friend was in an abusive relationship, her husband showed up at the casino the night before drunk and threatening to kill her, and it looks like he shot her and killed himself. Simple.
The problem is Charlie can’t let it go. Slowly she begins to suspect that Sterling had some involvement with her friend’s murder — we actually know he’s responsible; we know why in the teaser — and it becomes pretty clear that Sterling and his chief of security (Benjamin Bratt in his best work since Law and Order) tells him that they have to get rid of her.
Charlie very quickly learns she’s not Columbo. In those mysteries, when Peter Falk convinced the killer that he knew he was on to them, they went to jail. In the pilot — and subsequent episodes — Charlie’s sense of right and wrong always seems to end with her nearly dying. She manages to avoid it by turning the tables on Sterling, but his reaction is to jump out a window and Charlie barely escapes in a hail of gunfire. In the closing minutes of the episode, Sterling calls her and tells her that he has every intention of killing her and that running is not possible. Charlie knows very well how this will end if he catches her and is spending the series one step ahead of a fate far worse than law enforcement.
If this were a procedural we wouldn’t believe it for a minute, but Rian Johnson and his group of writers have essentially staged as a black comedy and a homage as much as it is a mystery. Like Colombo Lyonne is the only recurring character and every episode we see a new set of guest stars. In the second episode, in which Charlie ended up at a truck stop when her car blew a gasket, she collapses from her gunshot wound and is helped by Marge, who is played by Hong Chau. Marge gives her some advice as to how to stay ahead of the criminal, doesn’t ask questions and tells her to get a side hustle. When Marge ends up being framed for the murder that we see being committed in the teaser, Charlie reluctantly investigates even though she will never see Marge again. The mechanic who helps fix her car is John Ratzenberger, who honestly looks the same forty years after Cheers.
Columbo always seemed to know the holes in the perps story before he showed up. Charlie has to actually do the work. And because she’s not a cop, no one is particularly inclined to help her or even take her seriously. In the second episode she spends the better part of the show trying to get the perp she’s on to him, and when the perp not only confesses, but he also turns it on her and tells her he knows who she is and that she’s a fugitive. Indeed, the perp has cut her brake lines and it’s only by a stroke of luck she never realizes that she escapes intact. Charlie is not a survivor, can’t defend herself well, and is always working against a clock. All she has is the ability to know when someone is lying and as she freely confesses in the Pilot “it’s not as helpful as you might think.”
Lyonne by now can sell anything with her raspy voice and fatigue: all her characters seem to have been born cynical and it’s perfectly helpful for Charlie Cale. Because no one ever truly takes Lyonne’s characters seriously, she doesn’t take it that seriously either, even when everything is life or death. That is the main reason Poker Face works as well as it does: Charlie in that sense is a much a descendant of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe as Columbo, the reluctant gumshoe who keeps getting suckered in to doing the right thing even when its against their interest. Perhaps the spirit of noir is why a ludicrous premise works as well as it does: Charlie knows she’s on borrowed time, so she’s trying to do as much good as she can before the end comes. The series also seems to have a lot of actors who are capable of raising to the task (and possible Guest Actor and Actress nominations) Cherry Jones, Ellen Barkin, Judith Light and Nick Nolte are scheduled to come up in future episodes.
Poker Face has already been renewed for a second season. Can it last beyond the initial premise of the first season? Who knows? But Lyonne has already proved herself capable of handling time travel, so playing a rogue detective is something she’s more than qualified for. Just don’t stall too long when it comes to the third and last season of Russian Doll: making us wait to long for that would in itself be a crime.
My score: 4 stars.