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‘Poker Face: Season One’ (Blu-ray review)

After never really paying much attention to her in anything else, I surprised myself when I absolutely adored the quirky Natasha Lyonne in her Netflix series, Russian Doll. After its two intense, time-traveling seasons, I remember thinking that there’d probably never be any topping that for the actress.

I love being proven wrong on thoughts like that!

Poker Face has a very similar set-up to that of Natasha’s earlier show, in that the premise and the style is established in the first episode and everything comes full circle by episode ten. One major difference, though, is that what happens in-between those two episodes is largely unrelated to the overall story arc of the season.

Let me explain.

But first, this is one of those series that’s probably impossible to review without at least some spoilers slipping in so I apologize and warn you now in case you have yet to watch any episodes.

Okay, now. Where were we?

Oh, right! Poker Face!

The unofficially R-rated (for uncensored language and violence) series premiered earlier this year on Peacock and the first episode was free, after which a lot of folks no doubt got the premium version of Peacock just to see what happened next!

When the series made its debut, the critics were practically unanimous in calling it a modern take on Columbo.

The reason for that is that we see the murder first, before we ever even meet our heroine. As viewers, we know exactly what happened. The fun is in watching her slowly come to the realization of who the killer or killers are and how they accomplished their foul deed. In case one wonders if the mystery movie comparison was intended or accidental, that seems to be answered when the first episode’s credits are done in the classic 1960s-1970s Universal font!

But wait! This isn’t a cop show!

If anything, it’s an Adventure-Town series, like The Fugitive, Route 66, or The Incredible Hulk, where the protagonist moves on to a different location every single week, interacting with a whole new set of characters—essentially an anthology series with only one or two continuing roles.

In the case of Poker Face, there’s only one character in every episode and that’s Natasha Lyonne’s cocky, quirky Charlie Cale. And Charlie has a little trick that many a police investigator might wish they had—she’s a human lie detector. Yes, 99 times out of a hundred, she can correctly tell when someone’s lying. She’s had this odd little super power as long as she can remember but it has gotten her into trouble in the past.

We find out about that in the very first episode, “Dead Man’s Hand,” where she’s working at a casino in Las Vegas…but not until we’re well into the story.

First, though, we follow a young woman who works as a maid in a fancy high-rise casino hotel. As she’s cleaning a room while the resident is in the shower, he’s left his laptop open to some particularly dicey illegal pornography. She snaps a photo with her phone or else no one would believe her. She then finds the casino’s head of security, Cliff, (Benjamin Bratt) and he takes her to the manager, the owner’s son, Sterling Frost, Jr. (Adrien Brody). Turns out the man in question is a high-rolling gazillionaire they are intending to take for a fortune and turning him in at that point would ruin their elaborate plans. So instead, Cliff kills the maid, and frames her abusive husband, making it look like a murder-suicide.

Then, and only then, do we go back in time and meet Charlie.

In the first of what will be a recurring trope, Charlie Cale has been present all along. We just hadn’t seen her until that point.

It seems the casino manager’s plot to fleece the sleazy mark hinges on utilizing Charlie’s super power, which he learned of through his father, who had opted to give Charlie another chance after she had tried using her power at a different casino earlier in an effort to enrich herself.

Everything is well-planned and set to go. Their only problem is that it was Charlie’s friend who was killed and she questions the official story because she can tell when certain people are lying. Little by little, she pieces it all together and confronts the perpetrators. Rather than be disgraced to his domineering father, Frost chooses to leap from the balcony to his death. Charlie escapes Cliff only to get a phone call from her old friend, the deceased’s pop, Sterling Frost, Sr. or, as she calls him, Mr. Sterling (voiced by Ron Perlman).

Clearly, then, the tone for the rest of the series has been set.

It will deal with Charlie on the run from town to town, being chased by Cliff and the other minions of Mr. Sterling. Or at least that’s how it would’ve gone in the old days but good TV these days tends to be a little more innovative,

What follows are nine more episodes in different towns all right, but about seven of them have only a passing nod to Charlie being on the run, Cliff only cameos in a couple and Mr. Sterling doesn’t show up until the last one.

Instead, we get a wonderfully enjoyable set of stories with Charlie off the grid and using her power to solve murders. At one point halfway through the series, she even makes reference to the fact that there seems to be an awful lot of murders wherever she goes.

And the formula continues!

In a couple of the episodes, we’re nearly halfway through before we see where Charlie’s presence has been all along. And while she solves the murders, she isn’t always able to prove them, so she sometimes leaves the killers with the unsettling fact that someone knows their secrets.

To say the stories are diverse would be putting it mildly. The second episode, “The Night Shift,” finds us in a small truck stop town where a young mechanic kills a Subway employee for a winning lottery ticket and frames a passing truck driver.

The third, “The Stall,” is all about a flamboyant black Texas cowboy who runs a hugely successful barbecue business before he murders his brother/partner.

The fourth, “Rest in Metal,” is about a washed-up heavy metal band out on tour and so desperate for a new, money-making hit that they murder their drummer when he seems to write one.

Up next is the oddly titled “Time of the Monkey,” the story of two feisty old women in a nursing home who turn out to be former 1970s radicals and murder the man who narced on their activities 50 years ago when he turns up in the same facility.

A dinner theater performance by two feuding ex-TV co-stars sets the stage—literally—for my favorite episode, “Exit Stage Death!” Murder, blackmail, and treachery at its finest.

That’s followed by my least favorite—but still good!—episode, “The Future of the Sport,” in which an aging racing car driver attempts to sabotage his young rival who turns the tables on him. Is there even a murder in this episode, though? Trying to recall but I don’t believe there is.

Another favorite is episode eight, “The Orpheus Syndrome.” In it, a murder that took place on a movie set decades ago has affected the lives of many people since, and one is willing to kill over and over to make sure nothing changes.

The penultimate episode, “Escape from Sh*t Mountain,” is a harrowing thriller set in the snow-covered mountains in which two men who killed a girl years before try to cover up their need to kill again to keep their secret safe. This is also the only episode where Charlie shows any interest at all in the opposite sex…or any sex, for that matter.

In every single episode, we eventually see that Charlie was there all along. She’s a waitress at the dinner theater, the merch girl for the band, getting her car fixed at the truck stop, working as assistant to the old monster movie maker. She’s also a hit and run victim in the mountain blizzard.

It’s while she’s recovering from that last episode that Cliff finally catches up to Charlie. We are shown, in fact, that, like Charlie herself, Cliff has been behind the scenes in every episode, even if he was only on-screen in a couple. The final episode, “The Hook,” is exactly what we had expected out of the whole season…only still not really.

Turns out Sterling Frost, Sr. paid for Charlie’s hospital stay and Cliff is waiting for her on her discharge. By this point, in her time, we’re told it’s been a year. Turns out tempers have settled and Mr. Sterling is no longer hot to kill Charlie. No, now he wants to put her power to his own use to take down his major rival, a female casino owner in Atlantic City. Sounds good to Charlie if it means she can stop running. Well…sounds good until Sterling is murdered and Charlie deftly framed for same, putting her right back on the run! She manages to straighten things out this time, though, clearing her name all around and even turning the police onto the female casino owner who orchestrated it all. Only she gets away and at the end of this last episode, everything has come full circle.

This time, instead of a call from Ron Perlman telling her she has nowhere to hide, she gets a call from the similarly-sounding (coincidence?) Rhea Perlman, telling her she has nowhere to hide, and she’s off to Season Two!

If it ended there, to be honest, I think that would be perfect but, presuming the actor’s strike ends eventually, there will be more, and I welcome them.

One of the joys of the old Columbo episodes was, of course, its parade of guest stars. That tradition continues here, although they aren’t always the killers.

Big names and recognizable faces throughout this series include John Ratzenberger (Cheers), Chloe Sevigny (who had played Natasha’s character’s mom in Russian Doll), Judith Light (Who’s the Boss?), Tim Meadows (SNL), Ellen Barkin (aged beautifully but almost unrecognizable from her many ‘80s roles!), Tim Blake Nelson (Watchmen), Nick Nolte (a wonderful performance taking full advantage of his aging!), Tim Russ (Star Trek: Voyager), Luiz Guzman (Gomez Addams in Wednesday), Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and, in two episodes, Simon Helberg (The Big Bang Theory). Those are only some of the folks I personally recognized. There are others, as well as enjoyably showy performances by a host of actors I’d never seen or heard of before such as Lil Rel Howery, Nicholas Cirillo, and Cherry Jones.

Special kudos to Benjamin Bratt as Cliff, one of those remarkably charismatic actors, here going for cool and aloof for the most part but clearly putting his mark on the first and last episodes of the season almost as much as our star, herself.

The writing throughout is charmingly clever with a nice mix of heavier drama and humor—often black humor—and certainly a special nod should be given to the show’s lovely cinematography and perfectly chosen songs (They somehow managed to resist using Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.”). Everything is so well-done that the wonderful Natasha Lyonne herself, as the endearing tough broad heroine Charlie, with her chalkboard scraping voice, her mumbling to herself, and her insatiable curiosity, is just the icing on this incredibly satisfying Poker Face cake.

Booksteve recommends.

 

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