"Poker Face" recap - Ep. 1 "Dead Man's Hand"

It's a bold maneuver for Rian Johnson to make Agatha Christie "whodunnit" throwbacks in his Benoit Blanc movie series while simultaneously creating a "howcatchem" mystery television program more akin to "Columbo." I say it's bold primarily because television has morphed away from standalone case-of-the-week formats and has fully embraced the season-long plot. Heck, even Tim Burton's goth teen prep school caper starring Wednesday Addams follows the "Lost" formula of presenting a mystery in the pilot and following it across all eight episodes. How do networks, streaming services, audiences, and writers rooms go back at this point?

Johnson's answer: find the perfect personality to follow from case to case. The formula demands a sleuth you would be happy to watch just folding their laundry. That's why Peter Faulk's rumpled detective was such a big hit in the 1970s. It wasn't the intrigue of the plot--for one thing, every episode shows you at the start exactly who committed the crime and how--it was the personable way in which this off-beat underdog would puzzle it out and trap the villain with their own arrogance. Enter Natasha Lyonne, such a unique and endearing presence with her old-timey cadence, slouchy casual demeanor, and classic good looks. After finding mainstream success with audiences on "Orange is the New Black," she was given the opportunity to put her potent mixture of sly cynicism and aching vulnerability to work in "Russian Doll" as both lead performer and creator. When you add this kind of presence, and Lyonne's creative input, to Johnson's meticulously crafted throwback to a bygone era of the NBC Mystery Movie of the Week you find a show that is so laser-specific in its aims that it can't help but hit the target, even if modern audiences might not be compelled into a breathless binge.

Peacock's "Poker Face" does have something those old-fashioned detective shows don't. The first episode, "Dead Man's Hand," serves as an origin story for our intrepid protagonist and the setup for her nomadic lifestyle in the episodes to come. But first, this being a murder mystery, it needs to open with the crime. Lyonne's OITNB costar, Dascha Polanco, is the first splashy guest star on the docket. As Natalie, a housekeeping worker at a high-rise casino, she discovers something incriminating while cleaning the suite of an ultra-high roller and does what anyone in 2023 would do: she snaps a photo, she removes herself from danger, and she alerts security. Unfortunately for Natalie, her bosses are more concerned with securing the flow of money from their biggest whale, and decide to silence her instead.

Polanco was one of my MVPs on Netflix's prison dramedy chiefly because of her control over her expressive face. Here, she is tasked with conveying to the audience just how immediately terrifying and depraved her evidence must be, as Johnson playfully never shows or reveals what she has discovered. Leaving it to our wildest assumptions and Polanco's reaction is far more potent, and gives the show an immediate hard-boiled air. Adrien Brody's slimy casino bigwig Sterling Frost reassures her, in the actor's meticulous and calm tone, that everything will be taken care of, while shooting looks at a tall-dark-and-sinister Benjamin Bratt that promise quite the opposite. Bratt is playing broad as the head of security for the casino, aka the creepy thug doing the actual violent legwork. His quick and practiced execution of both Natalie and her unsuspecting husband signal that this is likely not the first time he's staged a murder-suicide on behalf of the casino's profit margin.

Hard-cut to Lyonne as Charlie, a cocktail waitress at the casino and Natalie's friend. Primo TV detective credentials: she lives in a trailer like Rockford, she is casual acquaintances with small-time crooks, and she drives a late 1960s muscle car. Johnson introduces her amid some unexpectedly breathtaking shots against lens-flaring sunsets, and it's really worth noting how much better the visuals are here versus most other streaming service shows. Had "Poker Face" been a part of Johnson's Netflix contract, I'm confident that the depth of field and lingering angles would be much flatter, and far less adept at conveying clues to an audience visually. 

Charlie's ratty but comfy loungewear and beer breakfasts bely an incredibly sharp mind, including a deus ex mechanism akin to Marta's perjury-related tummy troubles in Knives Out. Charlie has a supernatural ability to detect lies, which her boss Sterling has decided to use for an off-the-books poker game hosted by none other than Mr. Caine, the whale whose unsecured laptop caused Natalie's death.

Sterling, as it turns out, is a rich doofus. His father owns the casino and discovered Charlie making an epic run on every back-room poker game in the country. Eager to make a name for himself, Sterling asks if she'd like to make a huge sum of money fixing the game with Mr. Caine. Lyonne's casual swagger hits a high note with, "I've been rich. It's easier than being broke, harder than doing just fine." She's not greedy, but like any other average American she's immediately worried that she'll be canned from her regular job if she doesn't agree to go along with the scheme. 

Meanwhile, Charlie fixates on Natalie's death and how tiny details don't add up. The murder weapon, a revolver pilfered off of Natalie's drunken trainwreck of a husband, was never returned to him so he could use it on the both of them. Natalie left work early without clocking out, and called Charlie just beforehand. Lyonne's trademark sass and "hot mess" approach to the character runs nicely parallel to the hard-boiled detective trope, as she's continually brushed off by law enforcement and underestimated by the high-class villains. Despite admitting how smart and observant she is, they cannot get past her artful lack of fucks to give. 

In between the investigation bits, Johnson is having a ball writing comedy material for such a character, using her smartphone as a lightning rod for social media and data cloud zingers and adding a running gag where one particular noun keeps escaping Charlie's vocabulary. "Poker Face" is different from its mystery television elders in this regard, too: it's a comedy first and foremost. With Lyonne's smart-alecky performance and Johnson's nerdy penchant for upended expectations and quick, off-the-cuff dialogue, there was little room for any other tone.

Things do get intense, eventually, when Charlie confronts Sterling and Cliff and accuses them of murder. Lyonne is also capable of great dramatic poise, and her palpable fear when threatened with being tossed out a window is as real as you can get. Johnson directs the debut episode with lots of lingering close-ups of his stacked cast, giving them as much time as necessary to tell as much internal story as possible. That's a bright spot, especially compared to how the dialogue unfolds the climax of the episode. Brody plays a great cocky piece of shit, and when his character reiterates for the sixth or seventh time that Charlie is no cop, she has no confession recorded, she has no evidence...it doesn't even matter than the twist is telegraphed, it's just a joy to see him crestfallen. Johnson tips his hand pretty hard with this moment and some other big "LOOK AT THE CLUE" shots, and on purpose. It's fun, as the audience, to realize right before the reveal that Charlie isn't looking to lock up Natalie's killers so much as completely ruin their business and reputations. Having sold out the poker cheating scheme to Caine and every other high-roller he knows, she looks on satisfied as Sterling gets an immediate angry phone call from daddy. Though, she's less satisfied with the rotten bastard's swift decision to dive off the balcony instead of face his father's wrath.

I figure that in any other episode of this show that would be where we head for credits. But this is still Charlie's origin story, so she is suddenly shot and chased through the hotel by Bratt in a short sequence that is thrilling if not a little off-key with the rest of the episode. Now she's on the run, off the grid, and Sterling Sr. will stop at nothing and use his considerable wealth and dirty influence to have her head. The stakes are high, and the urgency is appropriate for modern TV. I'm hoping that Johnson keeps the promise of his throwback presentation and doesn't make the casino thug chase an equal partner to the case-of-the-week format. Perhaps Charlie should just drift from small town to small town and breeze away quickly, like "The Incredible Hulk." Now that we understand what she's drifting away from, I hope against hope that we can get down to business and have a great standalone murder mystery each week.

That seems like Rian Johnson's real delight in creating the show, bringing back a bygone era where the series does not constantly need to be a step ahead of the audience. I'm willing to admit that "Poker Face" doesn't aim terribly high on an artistic level, but the fun comfort-watch that it does aim for, it nails it.

Episode Grade: A-

Stray Notes:

-Charlie's preferred beverage of choice at the casino bar and at home is a classic Coors Light pounders (a cheap but palatable watery domestic). Up in Sterling's office and the casino's "crow's nest" security room/lounge, the beer stocked is Heineken (a more expensive import beer, but equally as mundane in taste) but in the same tallboy can. I can't help but figure Johnson is making some comment on how the higher class people only have better things in appearance and price only, echoing Charlie's philosophy about her finances.

-Bratt's odious casino fixer, Cliff, is a fan of "Burn Notice," and the comparison between the USA Network's unlicensed private eye and Charlie is an apt one once we reach the climax of the episode and find that Charlie isn't interested in law and order at all, as long as the right guy gets his just desserts.

-Forgive the Star Wars nerd reflex, but Charlie smashing her phone into oblivion before hitting the road strikes me exactly the same way as Kylo Ren smashing his helmet. While it's an important moment of plot and character development, it also is a practical and convenient way for Johnson to write his way out of certain obstacles. While the helmet got in the way of featuring Adam Driver's facial performance, the cell phone needed to go to prevent obvious "this is where you call the police/tow truck/google for help" issues later in the series.

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