“Poker Face” Season 1 Review

The show builds tension most effectively when it intertwines its season-long runaway arc with its episodic mysteries. In the season’s standout second episode, Johnson strikes this balance well with a simple storytelling tool. When Charlie uses an ATM, she sets a four-hour countdown on her watch, giving herself a strict deadline to get out of town before her old boss’s head security guard shows up. As she works to solve the episode’s mystery, she keeps checking her watch, squirming each time she wonders if she should stay to prove her new friend’s innocence or leave to save herself. It makes every clue feel more precious and every setback more nail-biting. 

Later episodes ditch this urgency entirely, instead making Charlie’s life in hiding feel more like a carefree romp. In these episodes, the show derives its entertainment less from the suspense of mystery-solving and more from the shiny thrill of building new worlds with weird characters. The most successful iterations of this work because of the potent chemistry of guest actors. In an episode where Charlie joins a middle-aged metal band on their reunion tour, Chloë Sevigny’s steely lead singer Ruby Ruin finds an unlikely rival in Gavin, the grubby young drummer she picked up off of Craigslist, played by an effervescent Nicholas Cirillo. They clash again and again: Ruby in head-to-toe black latex performing alongside Gavin in a sweaty tank top, Ruby telling Gavin to shut up while he shrieks about his adoration for her music. The delights of their dynamic make it easy to forgive the parts of the episode that feel crammed in, as in the blink-and-you-miss-it montage where the killers lay their trap, or in the abrupt revelation, mid-episode, that Charlie had been accompanying the band the whole time, just out of frame. 

But the least successful versions of this kind of episode — more vibes, less plot — recycle tropes that Johnson already relied upon earlier in the season. For example, one lackluster story, set at a local theater, centers on an aging actor staging a comeback. Though Ellen Barkin acts her heart out, the desperate diva she plays feels like a more clichéd version of the bitter hardcore punk we saw in Sevigny two episodes before.

As a genre, the murder mystery is particularly accommodating of tropes and formulas. It’s a highly stylized kind of storytelling that often depends on elaborate plot pivots and spectacularly shady characters. It’s often fun to witness Johnson’s favorite patterns come back to play in Poker Face. Adrien Brody offers a slimier spin on the idiot billionaire archetype played by Edward Norton in Glass Onion. Charlie’s ability to detect lies is equally useful and far less somber when compared to Marta’s (Ana de Armas) inability to lie in Knives Out. But seeing Johnson’s storytelling instincts iterated again and again over several hourlong episodes makes the weak points stick out, and the predictability of each self-contained story wearisome.

This predictability is somewhat intentional, in that it’s built into the specific setup Johnson uses. He skips the classic Sherlock Holmes premise in which readers or viewers arrive at the scene alongside the detective and have to piece the clues together after the fact. Instead, each episode gives the game away within the first 15 minutes. Viewers bear witness to the exact circumstances of the murder, including who did it and how. In four of the six episodes made available to critics, viewers also immediately find out the killers’ motives. The killers always frame someone else or make it look like an accident, so Charlie has to piece together the truth from lies she overhears. But because viewers know the truth from the beginning, the back halves of these episodes can feel like waiting for Charlie to catch up. By the time she gets around to confronting the killers in a long-winded monologue, it’s hard to blame a viewer for being ready to move on. ●

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