Poker Face S1E1: Dead Man’s Hand

A while back, I wrote about Hollywood’s addiction to reboots, and how warmed-over nostalgia is ultimately empty. I concluded the best way to bring back the things you love is not to copy them, but to put the things you love about them into something new.

Rian Johnson, smart man that he is, listened. The internet has been clamoring for ages for a reboot of Columbo, the beloved 1970s series about a rumpled detective who’s underestimated by the rich and powerful people he investigates, but outsmarts them in the end. And in a twist from the usual whodunnit formula, the audience sees the murder (and the murderer) up front. The fun is seeing how Columbo tracks down the killer.

That’s not exactly the logline for Poker Face, but it’s close enough. Like Columbo, we open not with our detective, but a murder involving a casino hotel maid (Lyonne’s Orange Is the New Black costar Dascha Polanco), a high-stakes gambler, an incriminating laptop, and a casino staff desperate to keep the wrong person from talking.

And only ten minutes in do we meet Charlie Cale, who has the uncanny ability to tell when someone is lying. This has gotten her banned from the world of gambling and stuck living in a trailer in the desert, where she works as a cocktail waitress in the very same casino where the murder takes place. Since the hotel maid is her best friend, she’s very quickly roped into the murder, and takes it on herself to investigate.

Lyonne — as she has been from teenage roles in Slums of Beverly Hills and But I’m a Cheerleader up through Orange and Russian Doll — is a goddamn delight, all wisecracks and sardonic asides and prickly charm. She plays Charlie’s lie detector abilities like someone who’s been doing it her whole life, reacting to casual fibs with an offhand “bullshit” that she’s clearly muttered a thousand times before.

We know she’s going to add things up before the episode’s through, but it’s a joy to watch Charlie spin her wheels, starting with a feeling she can’t shake that something doesn’t add up. Over the course of the hour, she gradually puts the pieces together, never quite certain but never quite ready to let it go. In between that, we get a hilarious scene of Charlie making mile-a-minute accusations hopped up on caffeine, and a few heavy acting moments opposite Adrian Brody, the casino boss who tries to rope Charlie (and her bullshit-detecting abilities) into a scam while also trying to keep the murder hush-hush for business’ sake.

Which brings us back to Rian Johnson. He wrote and directed the episode, and it’s overflowing with detail and clever camera work — it’s no surprise that the director of Brick and Knives Out knows how to put a good crime story together. But the additional benefit of Johnson creating the show is that everyone wants to work with him. So we get a heavy hitter like Brody, Benjamin Bratt as his glowering fixer, and a parade of A-list guest stars waiting in the wings for future episodes. 

Brody brings his A game to a role that could easily be a one-note sleaze, making him menacing but also a bit pathetic. He’s determined to pull off a big score, not for money’s sake, but to show up his father, who thinks he’s a fuckup (and isn’t wrong). He’s not quite smart enough to be the mastermind he thinks he is, but he’s also smart enough to studiously avoid making any declarative statements that can set off Charlie’s weapons-grade bullshit detector.

By the end of the episode, Charlie’s cracked the case, but made a powerful enemy. Powerful enough that the show becomes another staple of 1970s television — the hero on the run, as like The Fugitive or The Incredible Hulk (or Cain in Kung Fu, name-checked here in a clip from Pulp Fiction, because Johnson knows his pop culture references and wants to make sure you know he knows). Charlie’s destined to spend future installments running from town to town, one step ahead of trouble, stopping just long enough to solve each week’s murder. Stay tuned.

Stray Bullets:

• Lyonne and Polanco hardly interacted on Orange is the New Black, but they have such an easy rapport here as friends. To Poker Face’s credit, it doesn’t dream of going for the cheap thrill of acknowledging that you know these two from a different thing and here they are again.

• Bratt’s casino security chief Cliff LeGrand is the one character besides Charlie who figures into future episodes, which we’re looking forward to. Not only is he great at playing the heavy, he’s aged about six months since his time on Law & Order in the 2000s.

• Peacock has released four episodes already, with six more on the way. We’re going to space out our reviews, as binge-watching is one thing, binge-writing is quite another. 

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