Are you watching “Poker Face?”

A couple of things keep from reviewing more TV series, short or long form.

They’re a big investment in time if you want to do a show justice. Watching three, four or five episodes are kind of a must, and for someone who takes notes, jots down snippets of dialogue to illustrate punchy writing, or its opposite (dull hackwork), that’s a whole day.

And the reviews, once you’ve written them, have no shelf life. Viewers/consumers tend to flock to a show when it’s new, with a few obsessing about “Ozark,” “Bosch” or “The Walking Dead” or that Taika Waititi gay pirates thing, doing blogs, podcasts and the like as the series continues, while the rest of the culture has moved on.

With every streaming service coming up with marquee shows — “Handmaid’s Tale,” “Only Murders in the Building,” “Ted Lasso” — subscribing to them all just to keep up isn’t cost effective. Getting every single streamer/cable operation to provide critics with previews of their next big thing is exhausting, because most aren’t as efficient as most film studios, Netflix, Paramount and Apple TV+, at telling you what they have coming up and setting you up with site access to review it.

Follow Disney’s lead, kids. They have this figured out.

So I’m not reviewing “Poker Face,” despite its very promising pilot. And great cast. And the fact that Rian Johnson has taken his Netflix movie proof-of-concept handling of mysteries to its logical conclusion, long-form series.

A Natasha Lyonne star vehicle — long may she reign — it’s got elements of TV classics like “Columbo,” “The Fugitive” and “The Immortal” in it, as regular TV critics have pointed out. But its setting, starting in the sordid world of Nevada gambling and wandering off from there, has “The Cooler” and “Hard Eight” wired in.

Lyonne plays Charlie Cale, a high-mileage, high-functioning alcoholic who when we meet her is just another short-skirt cocktail waitress at Frost Casino in somewhere-other-than-Vegas Nevada. She’s “doing all right,” living in a tiny, battered travel trailer, keeping her ’70s Plymouth Barracuda running, with enough money for beer and whatever it is we don’t see her eating.

Charlie wound up in Gambling Country thanks to her “gift.” She’s got an uncanny knack for sensing when somebody is lying. Lying is called “bluffing” in poker, so you get the connection. Not that she can gamble there.

The pilot is about a friend from that casino hotel who sees something illegal and tries to report it and to reach Charlie, but is murdered in the opening scenes. As in “Colombo” and other tales of this type, the show is about how each week’s crime and criminal are unraveled by persistent, annoying Charlie, her gift and her slightly askew, somewhat half-assed sense of moral justice.

Johnson immerses us in each week’s corner of the world Charlie inhabits, makes his case for why crimes in this milieu are the sort that cops — in gambling towns, they’re pretty much all on the take — don’t sweat. These are “little people” whom “nobody’ll miss.” And he does his damnedest to scripturally and cinematically make Charlie’s case using just her tricky way of questioning (“The Closer,” with a near-supernatural bent), her booze-addled “Monk” powers of observation, her survival instincts and her common sense. Her vague goal, made up on the fly, is to crack the case and acquire some sort of rough justice by the open-ended (she’s on the lam) closing credits.

Lyonne, a former teen star who made a comeback with “Orange is the New Black,” is at her scruffy, sassy, blowsy best here. She makes most every time she says “BullSHIT” at a lie she’s willing to call someone on to their face, fresh.

Johnson signed up a SAG directory of co-stars to populate Charlie’s traveling panorama of victims and suspects — Oscar winner Adrien Brody and the steely Benjamin Bratt in the pilot, with Ron PERLMAN, Judith Light, the estimable Tim Blake Nelson, Megan Suri, Chloe Sevigny, Ellen Barkin, Nick Nolte, Simon Helberg (“Big Bang Theory”), Tim Meadows of “SNL,” Lil Rel Howery and the unseen, menacing voice of a Mr. Big casino owner matching wits and learning the parameters of Charlie’s “gift” the hard way throughout the run.

I like Johnson’s problem-solving, the situations he gets his characters into and ways he comes up with for Charlie to escape her latest fix. But I do wonder how long he can keep this up. “Glass Onion” proved that he’s got a limited number of tricks up his sleeve for Benoit Blanc to employ, and even in the pilot to “Poker Face” we see Charlie, and him, flailing a bit, missing the Best Way to Get Out of a Crowded Hotel When You’re Being Chased gambit.

Sending your heroine on the lam in a beater of a 50 year-old conspicuous muscle “car with character,” is cool but not the subtlest/cleverest touch.

But I plan to get back to “Poker Face” when Peacock parks it on their free site down the road. If you’re curious, Peacock will let you set up an account, credit card free, to see that pilot and some of their older content, so even if you don’t subscribe — $29 and change for a whole year right now seems like a bargain — you can at least see what all the fuss is about.

In the case of “Poker Face,” that fuss seems justified.


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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1 Response to Are you watching “Poker Face?”

  1. Brian says:

    Most of the first episode was done with style and wit, a return to form for the writer/director of the excellent “Knives Out” and the disappointing “Glass Onion.” And Natasha Lyonne of course is a treasure. But why does such a cleverly written episode lead up to a moment when the savvy main character [SPOILER ALERT] behaves like an idiot? After Charlie has figured out who killed her friend, why does she explain everything to the killers, who will obviously have no compunctions about killing her too? Wouldn’t it have been easy enough for Johnson to write a scene putting Charlie in peril without suddenly subtracting fifty points from her IQ?

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