Once and for all time, most television was like The Face of PokerPeacock’s new drama created by Glass onionRian Johnson and the lion Russian dollIt’s Natasha Lyonne. It’s a purely episodic, occasional show of the week. Each episode creates its own specific story, which Lyonne’s Charlie Cale finds a way to wrap up by the end of the hour. There are some extremely loose threads going on, but you could theoretically watch every episode but the first in any order and get the same enjoyment from each. It’s a show that relies heavily on the appeal of its star and on the ability of Johnson and the other writers and directors to make each individual story so interesting that you’ll want to come back for more without any real hints. It continues.
For decades, that’s how TV worked. Then it came along wire, Breaking Bad, game of thrones, etc., and suddenly the case of the week was passable — simple stuff from a time before we knew TV could be any better. Serialization was the new king, and if each episode wasn’t somehow contributing to a larger story, what was the point?
In many ways, television has benefited greatly from this change. The best shows of this century have been able to aim higher, dig deeper, and take huge advantage of the sheer amount of time afforded by telling a story about a group of characters for years. But in other ways, we really have missed something. Serialization has become as formulaic as purely episodic storytelling once was. Too many presenters – whether they’re screenwriters trying to expand the plot of a movie they couldn’t sell, or just someone who got all the wrong lessons from watching The sopranosor thought it would be easy to just copy Breaking BadStructure – mistakenly assume an ongoing narrative is intrinsically interesting just because it plays out for an entire season, or an entire series. Complexity is treated as rewarding for its own sake, not because it adds any value to the story being told. So we get these long, amorphous slurs—”It’s a 10-hour movie!” – who forget how to have fun because all they care about is forward momentum.
Thank goodness, then, for Johnson, Lyonne, and everyone else involved in the creation The Face of Poker. It puts in all the best elements of yesteryear, but in a way that makes the show feel thoroughly modern—in the same way that Knives out AND Glass onion are inspired by Agatha Christie mysteries without feeling like dusty period pieces.
Charlie, we learn, was once an unbeatable poker player thanks to an unusual, essentially superhuman ability: she can always tell when someone is lying. Eventually, she ran into the wrong people and now works as a cocktail waitress at a Nevada casino, just trying to stay out of trouble. But as with these kinds of shows, trouble inevitably keeps finding her, always in the form of a murder that only she can solve because she knows the killer is full of her.
The format is a mix of classics Columbo open mystery and the approach Johnson has taken with Benoit Blanc’s films. Each episode opens with 10-15 minutes without Charlie as we meet the killers and their victims and see how and why the murder happened. The stories then flash back to show how Charlie already knew these characters, before we finally get to understand what happened, as well as a way to make the bad guys see justice – even though Charlie isn’t cop and, in fact, must stay clear of the law because the events of the first episode make him a fugitive who must travel anonymously from town to town. (The only constant element is that a casino enforcer, played by Benjamin Bratt, is following him around the country because of the events of the pilot, but even that is relatively minor and rare in the critically acclaimed episodes. )
The settings and types of guest stars vary greatly from episode to episode. In one, she has a job at a Texas barbecue run by Lil Rel Howery; in another, she’s a ringleader for a one-hit wonder heavy metal band, with Chloë Sevigny as the aging frontwoman desperate for a comeback.
Although there was already a part of Peter Falk’s lieutenant colonel in Lyon Russian doll pERFORMANCE, Charlie is a very different type of character: friendly and curious about the people and the world around her. It’s a completely magnetic and winning performance, where she’s just as good on her own — say, tasting different types of wood to identify one of Lil Rel’s lies — as she is interacting with amazing guest stars like Hong Chau (as an anti-social long-haul truck driver) or Ellen Barkin (as an 80s TV star who now performs in a dinner theater).
And like the Blanc films, this is a show that uses every part of the buffalo. No matter how disposable a scene seems—say, Charlie having an amusing encounter with a stranger in a dumpster—it will eventually turn out to have some sort of plot significance. The whole thing is damn clever – including the many ways it manages to demonstrate the limits of being a human lie detector – and light on feet.
That said, because it shows how The Face of Poker have become so rare—or, at least, such as have also been executed in this well—that there is danger of wild overestimation. Like any episodic drama, some episodes are stronger than others, especially in the opening sequences without Leo. Episode five, for example, features Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson as former seventies revolutionaries who are now two of the toughest, baddest in their retirement community; the combination of that premise and these great veteran actors is so strong, I almost forgot I was waiting for Charlie. But the second episode, involving a trio of people who work the night shift at stores near a truck stop, only really picks up after that familiar sweep of strawberry blonde hair appears. And even when she does appear, the flashback segments can occasionally leave you impatient to get to the part where Charlie starts to poke holes in the killer’s story. (Columbo episodes tended to run between 70 and 100 minutes, and thus had more than enough time for Falk and the guest stars to interact; (after a 67-minute debut episode that should establish Charlie’s story and premise, all others are an hour or less, sometimes significantly less.)
But god, what a relief and a treat to see a TV show that actually wants to be a TV show and knows how to do it at such a high level. Johnson and Lyonne have said they would like to The Face of Poker as long as they can. Here’s hoping they get a chance. This is awesome.
The first four episodes of The Face of Poker begin airing January 26 on Peacock, with additional episodes to be released weekly. I have watched the first six episodes out of the 10 episodes.