Rian Johnson’s ‘Poker Face’ attempts to bring back a classic formula

By Janie Walenda

With his new television series “Poker Face,” Rian Johnson confirms that he has a knack for creating iconic detectives. One of the most exciting things about his “Knives Out” films for me is not his subversion of murder mystery tropes, but rather watching Benoit Blanc become established alongside iconic movie and television detectives. One such iconic detective is Lieutenant Columbo, who serves as a clear inspiration for both the characters and plots of Rian Johnson’s new series “Poker Face.”

The clearest influence of “Columbo” on “Poker Face” is in its formula. As opposed to a classic “whodunit” story, “Columbo” popularized, and “Poker Face” adapts, an inverted detective story. At the beginning of each episode, we get the crime spelled out to us; who’s dead, who did it and how they did it. Therefore, the plot of the episode is how said murderer will be caught.

The biggest twist to this formula that “Poker Face” adds is the lead detective, Charlie Cale. Played by Natasha Lyonne, Charlie always has some bond with the victims of the crime. The episodes frequently travel back in time to show how Charlie has intertwined with the crime. It adds a layer of heart to an often-cynical show.

The mature content of the show also sets it apart from other classic detective shows, even in Johnson’s “Knives Out” movies. Coarse language is frequent, right down to Charlie’s catchphrase. The show is also blunter with content that would normally be left implied. “Poker Face” shows restraint, but is definitely edgy, even for a murder mystery show.

What offsets the edginess is the show’s emphasis on small kindnesses and doing the right thing. Charlie is consistently and reluctantly drawn into these murder cases not because she was hired or out of ego, but because she wants justice for kind people. Each of the victims is a friend to Charlie, which contrasts the typical anti-social detective.

If I have to pick a favorite episode, “The Orpheus Syndrome” takes the cake

Charlie herself is a complicated character. Born with the ability to detect when people lie, she initially uses this power for financial gain in a poker circle. When she is caught by Sterling Frost Sr. she is stuck working as a waitress at a casino run by Frost’s son. Despite her circumstances, and the increasing trouble she finds herself in subsequent episodes, she’s not a bitter person. Instead, she is content with her life. She’s not an overly cheery or optimistic character, but I find her attitude of taking it one day at a time refreshing and fun to watch.

She’s also fun to watch as a detective. She’s not a genius, or even trained as a detective. All she brings to a case is her ability to detect lies, unruffled demeanor and inability to leave until justice is done. She makes a lot of mistakes, oftentimes unknowingly confiding in the murderer, but eventually discovers the truth every time.

Lyonne as Charlie is an extremely charismatic lead, resulting in a character who is compelling enough to make me want to turn in every week only to see what misadventures she gets into.

Another reason to keep watching is the rotating cast of guest stars every episode. “Poker Face” boasts an impressive cast, including but certainly not limited to Adrian Brody, John Ratzenberger, Judith Light, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jameela Jamil and Luis Guzmán. Benjamin Bratt and Ron Perlman have recurring antagonistic roles, as “Poker Face” balances a murder-of-the-week format with an overarching storyline.

“Poker Face” is quite simply good, entertaining television. The scripts are tight, the production value is top notch and the plot twists are wild. Especially towards the end of the show, when the episodes begin to break away from the formula, each episode keeps me entertained, and I enjoy all of them for different reasons. Just as “Knives Out” and “Glass Onion” have reinvigorated the murder mystery movie genre, “Poker Face” makes a strong case for a revival of classic murder mystery shows.

“Poker Face” is now streaming on Peacock

Janie Walenda is a sophomore Global Business major and the A&E editor for Cedars. She is passionate about musicals, animation and cold brew.

Images courtesy of Peacock

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