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The Familiar Delights of "Poker Face"

Rian Johnson's Mystery Show is About Homeyness and Loneliness

In my neighborhood, there is a house that has been recently repainted.

The house and its outbuilding, one brick and the other covered with a vaguely khaki-colored siding, have recently been doused in black paint, uniting them as a single, cohesive property. For years I’ve driven past this home at night, when it is lit from within and the interior is readily visible from the road, and wondered at its strange inner workings: while the main living space seems to have no walls, the 2x4 framing is visible, naked and evident. And so the repainting of this house is strange to me — why are you updating the perfectly acceptable exterior when the inside is unfinished?

This is also how I frequently feel about the state of genre television these days. 

It’s certainly how I feel about the state of murder-of-the-week shows, which, though still a popular network draw, appear to be disappearing on streaming. Hulu, though it hosts the fairly serviceable “Murder at the End of the World” and “Only Murders in the Building,” churns out true crime documentaries as though they were a factory line. Netflix, too, is thick with supposed twists on the mystery form, like the time-bending “Bodies” and the quickly-forgotten and frankly disappointing “Inside Man” (truly, it takes great skill to make David Tennant and Stanley Tucci unwatchable). 

And yet, these disruptions of the form seem to me to have lost the thread. They seem to disrupt the form without ever having mastered or indeed understood it at all. They underestimate the difficulty level of a good mystery, the beauty of its precision and formula. Indeed, in an attempt to keep viewers binge-watching, they typically forego the comforting murder-of-the-week form altogether, opting for a single mystery across several episodes. Yet the weekly mystery form is an institution for a reason: there is deep comfort in the knowledge that an episode will wrap. That’s why shows like “Law & Order: SVU” and even “Suits” have flourished on streaming, their ample backlogs launching them to the top of viewership charts. The knowability is the point. 

And so we have it: the current murder mystery television landscape is a veritable desert, with a tumbleweed of old “Murder, She Wrote” episodes rolling across the frame.

Enter “Poker Face.” 

Rian Johnson, director of such beloved fare as Knives Out and Glass Onion, and other less-beloved fare as The Last Jedi (I maintain it the best of the new trilogy), premiered his mystery-of-the-week show in early 2023 on Peacock, a streaming service almost no one has. This is a genuine misfortune, because “Poker Face” is the best mystery show in years. 

It’s clear from “Poker Face” that Johnson doesn’t view genre as a constraint or a thing to transcend. Rather, he loves genre. He loves the boundaries, and the improvisation that can occur within them. For Johnson, the confinements of genre breed creativity rather than suppressing it. “I write very structurally,” he told Vulture’s Kathryn Van Arendonk in an interview. “Even when what I’m going for is an emotional reaction from the audience, my brain approaches it in a structural way. The notion of building something where the thing works as a machine, as a whole, as one beautiful object you can hold in your hands and step back from, has a lot of appeal to me.” With "Poker Face," Johnson gives the impression that he is at home in this form, has memorized its contours, its blueprint. One feels he could climb the stairs in the dark, never missing a step, and knows exactly which ones creak.

In mystery films and novels, the house is often a kind of character. Johnson knows this well, proved it in Knives Out, with that home's warm wooden panelling and luscious textiles, its passageways and secrets. That ease is part of why that film has achieved an early status as a classic. He seems like someone who watched Clue a thousand times and has played the game well over the years.

So it's interesting, then, that “Poker Face” is a show about a wanderer. Natasha Lyonne (“Orange is the New Black,” “Russian Doll”) stars as Charlie Cale, a well-meaning casino worker with an infallible bullshit detector. Charlie’s talent for sensing lies comes with a catch, though, because she seems to get tangled up in an awful lot of wrongful deaths. At the start of the series, Charlie’s talent winds her up on the wrong side of some powerful figures, leaving her on the run. In each subsequent episode, we pick up with Charlie in a new place, watching her make each place into a new kind of home even as she glances nervously over her shoulder.

Even before she's officially on the run, Charlie has the air of a nomad. She perches on the steps of a dusty airstream trailer, smoking a cigarette. Even Lyonne's recognizable strawberry blond shag gives the impression that Charlie was simply blown here by chance. It feels clear that home, in the traditional sense -- of permanence, of safety, of comfort -- isn't her style. And yet, Charlie also seems to the kind of person who feels at home anywhere. It's a product, it seems, of her personality, of her ability to forge quick friendships. Because while her proximity to so many murders requires a certain suspension of disbelief, it's easy to believe that Charlie Cale would feel compelled to solve them. Charlie is a kind of person we all seem to know, yet who none of seem to be: the kind of person who makes friends seemingly at the drop of a hat, who is unselfish in ways that frankly astound me -- particularly because it seems to come so easily to her.

"Poker Face" has a promising enough premise, but it’s in the execution that both Johnson and Lyonne really shine. Each show is expertly shot and scored, with Johnson’s frequent collaborator Steven Yedlin managing cinematography and his cousin Nathan Johnson scoring the show. The episodes are skillfully plotted, and each one brings a new supporting cast of characters, many of them played by veteran actors: Hong Chau, Lil Rel Howery, Tim Blake Nelson, Stephanie Hsu, Judith Light. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg — the list goes on… and on… and on

So many creators chafe at being categorized, being boxed. I’ve long since stopped paying attention to all the entrepreneurs and show-runners and public intellectuals who claim to be doing something new, to be breaking the form. “This isn’t your mother’s Mean Girls,” the trailer says, and I sigh. It’s not unlike the Edward Norton character in Johnson’s second Knives Out film, Glass Onion, who prides himself and his circle on being disruptors — only to betray his own idiocy at every turn.

In the Vulture interview, Johnson says that he always wanted to make television. “When I was first telling my producer I wanted to do this, the genre I pitched him was not ‘mystery.’ I pitched him ‘TV.’ I said I wanted to do a great TV show.” With “Poker Face,” I believe he’s done it. And it’s an underrated art, the production of good television. 

The challenge is, as I’ve also said of romantic comedies and sports documentaries, embracing the form while keeping it interesting. How do you reinvest an old form with new meaning? “Poker Face” manages this with ease. It is smart without being snobby, easy-to-watch without being mind-numbing. 

See, “good television,” to me, doesn’t necessarily mean prestige series like “Succession” or “Breaking Bad” — although certain prestige shows like FX’s “Reservation Dogs” have proven they understand the art. Maybe, with the streaming era, the notion of serial television has ceased to mean much. But good television, for me, with the emphasis on television, is built on an understanding of the craft of seriality — how do you make a self-contained story each week, satisfying the reader while still keeping them coming back? This is what made the form fresh when it first aired. 

“Poker Face” is best in short stints, an episode at a time, where you can appreciate the slow pacing and the attention to detail in every lovingly composed shot. It’s not that the show is doing all that much that is new — it’s just that it’s doing it so well. The resounding feeling I get from Rian Johnson’s work is a feeling of love and attention, a devotion to craft that is built on genuine affection and geeky excitement at all the smallest details. “Poker Face” feels warm in an era when most programming is hot, smooth where others are sharp. It may be on a streaming platform, but it feels like it could just as easily have come to me on TBS on a Thursday evening while my mother cooks dinner in the other room. And I mean that in the best way. It’s comfortable, familiar. I am quite at home in its contours, even as I marvel at its craftsmanship.

Writing about this summer’s “Suits” resurgence, Defector’s David Roth described the form as “background television,” the kind of show you can watch while looking at your phone or making dinner. Streamers call this “second screen” viewing, assuming the prior use case, and I think that is one of the reasons this kind of programming often falls short for them. Certainly, millions of people — myself included — watch Netflix as background television, but it isn’t necessarily good television. "When the streamers try to do this sort of thing in the way they do — quickly, cheaply, cynically, and with little regard for the people making or watching it — that toxicity shows up downstream,” Roth writes. “This, I think, is why so much streaming television tends to feel smaller, cheaper, and worse than even mediocre recent cable programming — the airless, optimized, anti-human circumstances of its creation lead to a certain anhedonic artifice and a strange, strained joylessness. The colors are all off.”

Johnson based “Poker Face” on the mystery shows he grew up watching: “Magnum P.I.,” “Murder, She Wrote,” “Quantum Leap,” and, of course, “Columbo.” The show even borrows its form from the latter, opting not for the “whodunnit” model but rather its cousin, the “howdunnit.” We usually know who’s committed each week’s murder by the five-minute mark — the mystery is in how, precisely, our intrepid heroine figures it out.

Though I do see this DNA, as a child of the aughts, the show recalls for me a more sophisticated iteration of the USA shows I came of age with: “Monk,” “Psych,” “Suits,” “Royal Pains,” “White Collar.” These were programs my family piled into the living room to watch live, and they have lived second lives on streaming, with Peacock even producing made-for-streaming movies for some of them. “Poker Face,” though, is set apart from the pack of USA programs -- it is operating a much higher level of sophistication. Indeed, to watch Johnson’s work is to watch a master of craft, someone who relishes the details. The title card alone is a work of art, a direct reference to Columbo with its stark sans-serif font and copyright. I could spend reams on the precise gold of the lettering alone. 

Then there is the camerawork. The sparing but often counter-intuitive use of the dolly zoom, often used in an establishing shot to create a sense of foreboding before we even enter the scene. The show also utilizes filmic callbacks to the ’70s and ’80s shows on which it is based — such as the dissolve, a now-infrequently used technique that creates a kind of plodding, thoughtful affect — in interesting ways. 

Take, for example, the first scene of Episode 9, “Escape From Shit Mountain.” The episode begins with two consecutive dissolves: a slow-pan landscape fades into a slow-zoom on illustrious home, accompanied by the quiet ambient noise of the snowy vista. Both sound and image dissolve into guest star Joseph Gordon Levitt, backlit and sighing as the camera dollies backward, again slowly.

*viral Melania Trump tweet voice* What is he thinking?

These quiet 40 seconds are then juxtaposed with the next sequence, a montage of quick, noisy cuts that feature our character going about his day: 15 cuts in all, also in 40 seconds. As we watch the same sequence carry out for two more days, as we watch Levitt grow bored and restless, the cuts get longer. An overhead shot of a smoothie slipping down the sink zooms in on the drain with an agonizing slowness.

Thus, in an opening sequence that altogether takes just over three minutes, we have a sense of the slow and excruciating passage of time, and of Levitt’s character’s chaotic and failed attempts to fill that time. We understand precisely how the days feel for this wealthy entrepreneur trapped at home on house arrest.

This kind of thoughtful construction, as well as the sleek production value and warm ’70s tones, make for an aesthetic delight. Add to this Lyonne’s Charlie Cale, raspy-voiced and good-natured behind the wheel of a blue ’69 Plymouth Barracuda, and you have a winning formula. A show that feels free-wheeling and geographically diverse, with the exhilarating opportunity to solve a new mystery every episode — didn’t like last week’s? Well, here’s a new one. I haven’t had fun like this in ages, untempered by the seriousness of dire consequences or anti-hero egotism. 

“Poker Face” knows and loves the tropes, and it expects us to feel the same. It revels in references, knowing that a good allusion enhances the story rather than distracting from it. Rather than despising Chekhov’s gun, it invites it in and frames it beautifully and cozily: a prized rifle, mounted above the fireplace. 

For all her friendly demeanor, there's a deep and abiding loneliness to Charlie Cale. She's on the run, after all -- she has no one to turn to, no one to do for her what she is doing for others. The lonesome detective is a familiar trope, even if it's usually a man with a suit and a tumbler of whiskey rather than a raspy-voiced woman with a talent for lie-detecting. She is a lone wolf. Home, in any of its senses, does not come easily to her. It's an interesting feature for a show that feels so cozy for the audience: a heroine who can't seem to let herself get truly comfortable.

Sometimes the best art is that which elides itself, the difficulty of its achievement — this is the case with something like Van Gogh, who has been emulated endlessly and whose work yet awakens something in you in the contrasting colors of shadow, in the tactility of its slashing and meandering strokes. This is the case with women who have perfected the art of the natural makeup look, which, when I try it, looks to me only like foundation and blush lying atop my face, nothing so subtle or minimal as I intend. The skill is hidden, and the effort excruciating. 

A well-made structure is nothing to scoff at: anyone who's taken on a DIY project at home can tell you how much work hides behind a renovated bathroom or a newly-laid patio. My neighbors' scaffolding may be showing, but on the other hand, my flipped home had a ruined plumbing system when I moved in. The problems that ruin you in the end are often the things you don't see on the surface.

But enough is enough: sometimes a perfectly fantastic house is standing right next door to the repainted one. Give “Poker Face” the glory it deserves. Give it ten seasons and a hundred episodes, and tell Rian Johnson thanks for me. 


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