The Poker Face Of Modern TV Justice

Natasha Lyonne and Rian Johnson’s new series entertainingly reinvents some classic tropes

Nick Barlow

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Poker Face airs on Peacock in the US and Sky Max/Now TV in the UK

American TV has a long history of series based on a traveller who, often inadvertently, finds themselves bringing justice to a place and then moving on down the road to somewhere else, searching for a resolution to their own quest. He might arrive on horseback in a Western, he might be fleeing the law and seeking to prove his innocence, like The Fugitive, or he might be suffering from a cursed power he needs to escape from, like The Incredible Hulk.

Or she might arrive in a ’69 Plymouth Barracuda, running from a casino boss who blames her for the death of his son, with the ability to spot (“bullshit!”) when someone’s telling a lie. That’s the life of Natasha Lyonne’s Charlie Cale in Poker Face, roaming America and trying to stay off the grid while stumbling into murders that she’s uniquely placed both to notice and then to solve.

Of course, Poker Face most direct comparison is Columbo becauseof their structural similarities. Each episode starts by showing us the murder-of-the-week taking place, so there’s no mystery about who committed it and how. The mystery here is not “whodunit?” but “howcatchem?” though Charlie has a somewhat different role in the story to the one Peter Falk’s Columbo usually took. Her main purpose in life isn’t solving mysteries, they’re just something she stumbles across while trying to stay alive and off-the-grid, continually looking over her shoulder for the arrival of enforcer Cliff (Benjamin Bratt in a well-played supporting role).

Poker Face was created by Rian Johnson, and it follows the ethos of his films Knives Out and Glass Onion: justice and the law are not the same thing. Charlie’s situation means she has to stay away from the police and one of her regular problems is how to solve a crime when she can’t call on law enforcement for backup. She has her “human lie detector” skill, but the writers are smart enough to not make this a problem-solving superpower: Charlie can spot lies (and sometimes an unexpected truth amongst lies) but it doesn’t mean she can easily persuade people that what she’s discovered is the truth. In a world where people lie continuously — and the effects this can have on Charlie are…

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Nick Barlow

Former academic and politician, now walking, cycling and working out what comes next. https://linktr.ee/nickbarlow