Wednesday, December 6, 2023

What Makes ‘Poker Face’ a Triumph

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Like a local news broadcast or bit of Russian propaganda, the first season of Poker Face portrays the United States as being infested by liars and murderers. Each episode of Peacock’s mystery series depicts such horrors as fratricide and fraud in classic American locales: a Nevada casino, a Texas smokehouse, a Colorado ski lodge. The show’s heroine, Charlie Cale (played by Natasha Lyonne), wields an uncanny, possibly mystical talent for detecting bullshit, whether spewed by hotshot race-car drivers or kindly old ladies. “Everyone, they lie constantly,” she says. “It’s like birds chirping.”

And yet, as this week’s season finale culminated with shots of a highway cutting through amber-toned fields, it inspired a counterintuitive feeling: hope in the American dream. The brutality contained in Poker Face’s 10 episodes is outweighed by humor, humanism, intelligence, and, perhaps most crucially, optimism. The fact that the show is a hit speaks to a hunger for entertainment that counterbalances cruelty and kindness. In Poker Face’s America, justice depends less on vigilantism or the law than on regular people making authentic connections with one another. (I won’t significantly spoil any plot details.)

Poker Face’s message arises from its masterful construction. Each episode begins with the portrayal of a crime; Charlie then fits together puzzle pieces the viewer already comprehends. This means that to make the show entertaining, its creators—the executive producer Rian Johnson and the showrunners Nora and Lilla Zuckerman—had to focus on, well, entertainment. Zippy dialogue, memorable jokes, punchy visuals, and lovable characters supersede rote formulas for suspense. Episodes make time for formal detours (a Smell-O-Vision-like montage, a creature-feature-like sequence) and meandering diner-booth banter. On a deep, structural level, every little detail matters.

This fits with Poker Face’s divergence from a morally dubious cultural trend: true crime. Whether via a podcast about a real-life murderer or a docudrama about a Silicon Valley scammer, streaming-era storytelling has wrung endless profit from studying terrible people doing terrible things. Nothing is new about gawking at creeps, but the true-crime boom presumes to expose reality while actually distorting it into the shape of a sleek, propulsive thriller. By making criminals so central, series such as Inventing Anna and Dahmer inevitably humanize and glamorize them. Serving secondary roles, victims are flattened into tragic, hapless marks. We’re left with the stylish amplification of a sad truism: Because our society is built on trust, liars—even liars who are also killers—can get very far. These stories present as cautionary tales, but they’re really how-to kits.

In Poker Face, the baddies are humanized as well, but to different effects. The early parts of many episodes zoom in on banal existences: the Peloton-and-delivery-food routine of a rich guy on house arrest, the restlessness of radical activists living in a retirement home. Eventually, these killers’ backstories come to the fore—but usually just to highlight the pathetic hypocrisies that underlie their wrongdoing. Seemingly noble motives for murder—love, vengeance, justice—are discussed, but they tend to be flimsy covers for greed and self-interest. In the season finale, one character makes a speech about how they’re betraying someone else because they’ve been grossly mistreated. But their ultimate incentive for pulling the trigger is to acquire a yacht.

Cutting against such cynicism is Charlie, a raspy-voiced raconteur with an ear for deception and a priestly faith in the goodness of people. She’s drawn into each mystery less by the voyeurism of a true-crime aficionado than by her genuine connections with the people affected (although at one point this season, she does enlist a murder-solving podcaster to help her out). The finale, in which she declines offers of employment from various organizations in need of a truth-sniffer, shows that she stays on the road, helping others, simply because she wants to. By revealing a bit of her backstory and family history, the finale also implies that she has made sacrifices in order to keep using her talents. Like a crusading cowboy or lonely superhero, the price of a righteous life is rootlessness.

Unlike traditional Hollywood heroes, though, Charlie never presumes she can do her work on her own. Each episode, she makes allies who are as sharply drawn as the killer and herself. Mechanics and waiters and drifters are all vested with life through spicy writing and top-tier casting (veterans including Nick Nolte and up-and-comers such as Everything Everywhere All at Once’s Stephanie Hsu make appearances). All too often, one of these buddies turns out to be the episode’s murder victim. The fact that Charlie gets to know them so well makes their death meaningful to both the show’s hero and its audience. It also gives purpose—and a narrative arc—to the side characters who assist Charlie’s crime-solving. Although evildoers exist everywhere, the magic of Poker Face is that it makes them seem outnumbered by decent people.

And magic, to be sure, is a big part of the show. Charlie’s lie-busting powers are inexplicable and unerring, and thus, we must assume, somehow supernatural. So, too, is her pattern (curse?) of stumbling into murder wherever she goes. In the finale, she even acquires a glowing, lewd talisman that guides her quest. Harkening to a time before the true-crime wave, when Columbo and Murder, She Wrote approached grim realities with far-fetched whimsy and heart, Poker Face is lovingly, enthusiastically a fantasy. We don’t quite live in the country the show depicts, but in an odd way, we should wish to.

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