Episodes 1-8 available NOW; new episodes on Thursday
Creator/Writer/Director: Rian Johnson
Stars: Natasha Lyonne, Benjamin Bratt, Ron Perlman
Anyone who claims the lyrics to the song The Gambler are only about casinos or saloons is lying. While Kenny Rogers mentions some gambling paraphernalia, cards and the table, these are analogies for things in everyday life.
Poker Face, from creator/writer/director Rian Johnson, began streaming on the Peacock network in January 2023. The show stars Natasha Lyonne as Charlie Cale. The Nevada casino waitress ends up on the open road, solving episodic mysteries. But a line comparing Charlie to the series Burn Notice’s Michael Weston may be as misleading as Rogers’ lyrics.
To be fair, upon hearing Charlie’s tale you may recognize similiarities to Michael. They both were burned, blacklisted. And they both have muscle cars. There are some major differences, the first being that Michael was stuck in Miami meanwhile after being in Nevada most most of her life, Charlie can’t go back.
The Cards You’re Dealt
Poker Face exhibits its ability to deceive from the opening of its first episode titled Dead Man’s Hand. The camera slowly pans up from the floor of a worn Nevada hotel carpet to a cleaning cart as it slowly moves down the hallway. The cinematography makes the scene seem like a shot from The Shining. This momentary horror movie moment is a bit of the genre bending and blending that audiences can expect from Poker Face.
The camera focuses on a young woman, Natalie, as she enters a hotel room and begins cleaning. Suddenly, something on a laptop in the room catches her attention, alarming her so much that she snaps a picture of the screen and quickly exits the room. She takes this material to actor Benjamin Bratt’s Cliff, head of casino security. He escorts Natalie to the office of casino owner Sterling Frost Jr., played by Adrien Brody. Viewers never know what she saw, but whatever it is results in Natalie and her husband’s death. It also begins Poker Face’s protagonist’s new play, with Cliff in pursuit.
Rian Johnson shuffles and deals out each episode of Poker Face similar to the first episode. The principals, stars Ellen Barkin and Nick Nolte to name a few, and some particular details of each ‘mystery-of-the-week’ are presented during the opening. Often it is several minutes into each episode’s runtime before Cale makes her appearance. So actually Charlie is less like Weston and more like the Winchesters from Supernatural. And season 8, episode 4 ‘Bitten’ is the blueprint. Just like Sam and Dean, Charlie is on the road and runs into the situations where she can do what Natalie did; see something awful and do something about it. However, Charlie’s need to keep moving means she tends to end a job with a Quantum Leap, leaving it up to the authorities to finish up.
Stumbling in and out of situations is one area where Poker Face folds early; leaving too much to chance. In the series second episode, The Night Shift, most of Charlie’s clues come from conversations about losing on the lottery. It’s this sort of luck that leaves Poker Face feeling like it is playing things too cavalier. Most of Charlie’s charm and her new “career” come from the viewer accepting with some level of certainty she has this ability. Lyonne is convincing thoughout the calamities, managing to handle each mishap with a delivery that combines Lucy with Laverne. It’s just that the random occurrences, week after week, make it seem like one big setup. Each episode feels like this hot streak is too good to be true.
Pressing my luck?
Yes, Michael did have a lot of luck on his side, but the knowing duct tape makes you smart only came along after years as a spy. However, with the exception of her pseudo psychic skills the only thing Charlie has is luck; good, bad and dumb. Despite living most of her adult life in Nevada, Charlie often acts as clueless as Cher. And somehow she manages to find a job that leads her to the cases and cons. Poker Face’s Ms. Cale not only has the ability to detect liars, she seems to know their destinations.
It is worth noting that even though Charlie thinks her knack is as consistent as gravity, there is some fluctuation. Sterling Jr. insists she finish their scheme on the whale before informing the police about his involvement in Natalie’s murder. Why doesn’t Charlie call him out?
Maybe it’s because even though Charlie doesn’t have the former spy’s razor wit, she follows the ways of Weston. Particularly in how she handles her confrontational conversations and moments – the push. In the first episode, once Charlie maneuvers through the manure notice how she delivers her evidence to Cliff and Sterling Jr. It’s here when Lyonne delivers the lines with a her calm tenor voice; like Michael’s opening monologue on episodes of Burn Notice. Never once does her tone or face betray what she knows; the cards she is holding. When Sterling Jr. realizes he has gone bust, the actress’ slight smirk says it all.
Which makes you realize that the Burn Notice reference isn’t a misdirection, it just points out an indiscretion. Look at the promotional poster for the Peacock series and then check out most of the images advertising Burn Notice. What do you see? For two people with not so bright futures, both Charlie and Michael are sporting shades.
But Charlie doesn’t get as much (spot)light on her show as Michael did.
Now that’s some real bullsh*t