There are no two ways about it: when it comes to watching TV these days, we are being ripped off.
I say this as a curmudgeon who is old enough to remember when entertainment came in twelve channels that cost nothing more than the electricity. Nowadays, this Californian pays Comcast $265/month for my basic cable. This gives me access to something like twelve hundred channels – and yet I can’t tell you how often it feels like there’s nothing on. That’s because the really good shows – the water cooler shows – are on streaming services, and these all charge their own fees. If I want to watch Ted Lasso, The Mandalorian, Stranger Things, Only Murders in the Building, Fleabag, The Good Fight, and Succession. I can only do this if I subscribe to Apple+, Disney, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Paramount+ and HBO Max. That amounts to an additional $70+ a month – more if I want to avoid commercials.
As of this moment, I do subscribe to Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple+ and Paramount. I have no interest in The Mandalorian or anything Disney has to offer – except the toppling of Ron de Santis. I’ve convinced myself for the time being that Succession is too dark . . . but don’t get me started on the problems that arise when folks ask me, “Haven’t you watched Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? yet??”
The other day, I tried to rent a Sidney Lumet movie that I had never heard of and accidentally found myself subscribing to Peacock. Evidently, I get the month of June for free, and since I have no interest in re-watching every incarnation of Law and Order – and since the Lumet movie was pretty bad – I intend to stop my Peacock subscription before the first bill arrives. Meanwhile, I had a chance to do something that I had pretty much given up on . . . I got to watch Poker Face.
Poker Face is a series created and produced by Rian Johnson, who has amply shown his GAD cred with two Knives Out movies: there’s the eccentric but brilliant detective (played to perfection by Daniel Craig), fabulous isolated settings, closed circles of celebrity suspects, and joyful clueing. Johnson has proven he can deliver a joyful ode to the Golden Age of Detection – and there are more to come!
The only problem with Knives Out and its sequel, Glass Onion, is that the solutions in both films seemed painfully obvious to me, and as much as I love how Johnson shares his evident love of the genre, I’m still waiting for him to prove that he can write a mystery that, well, mystifies.
Poker Face is a mystery series as well, but the question of whodunnit is moot here. This is an inverted mystery series, an obvious homage to Columbo, where each week the murderer is revealed in Act One, and then it’s up to the eccentric but brilliant detective to prove theydunnit! I’ll be honest: literarily, I’m not an inverted fan (did I mention I like a mystery that mystifies?), and I have to admit that Columbo felt too formulaic to me. True, there was a fabulous rotating roster of celebrity guest stars (Ida Lupino, Ray Milland, Robert Culp!), but they all played variations on the same homicidal egotist, they all looked down their noses at shlumpy Lieutenant Columbo (shlumpily played by Peter Falk), and they all stood no chance in hell of getting away with murder.
I suppose you could all Poker Face formulaic as well, but this time the formula entertains and amuses me to no end. Part of this has to do with the delightful Natasha Lyonne playing the “Columbo” role of Charlie Cale and giving her an overarching backstory that keeps her moving across the country, encountering a diverse range of settings and suspects. And the other great thing about the show is how Johnson and his fellow writers, free of having to stun us with the “whodunnit?” question, still manage to spring all manner of twists and surprises into all ten episodes.
In “Dead Man’s Hand,” we meet Charlie Cale, a woman blessed/cursed with the gift of being able to look into a person’s face as they speak and know when they are lying. She has used this ability to make a fortune in high stakes poker games until she was caught by Las Vegas casino owner Sterling Frost and forced to work for Frost as a cocktail waitress.
The first episode also educates us on the series’ formula. Before we even meet Charlie, we are introduced to the murderer of the week. Here, it’s the manager of the Frost casino and the owner’s son, Sterling Frost, Jr. (Adrian Brody. Like most of the guest murderers on Poker Face, Frost doesn’t enter the scene with murder in his heart; rather, he has murder thrust upon him by circumstances. In this case, he doesn’t even get his own hands dirty but enlists begrudging services of his Chief of Security Cliff LeGrand (recurring regular Benjamin Bratt)
Once the murder has been committed, the episode backs up in time to insert Charlie into the scene. We now get to see certain events from her perspective, find out what she witnessed and what she still has to discover. In the opener, Charlie is motivated to find the murderer because one of the victims was her friend, and she does this by utilizing her face-reading skill and by sussing out clues. (The clue in that gives the game away here is a clever visual clue that we are shown more than once.) Charlie confronts the murderer, and then has to deal with the serious repercussions of her actions. The finale of “Dead Man’s Hand” sends her on the run to save her life from some powerful – and powerfully angry – people.
Each subsequent episode finds her in a different part of the country, (the show is beautifully filmed, most of it in New York’s Hudson Valley, but also in New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada), trying to keep four hours ahead of Cliff LeGrand because it takes four hours after you’ve used an ATM or credit card for a henchman to track you down! – and still looking for a bit of human connection in each place she lands. Sometimes she connects with a person framed for the murder (as happens in Episode Two, “The Night Shift,”), sometimes it’s the victim, and more than once, Charlie strikes up a friendship with the killer themselves!
Each episode is just different enough to keep the formulaic aspects fresh, and the writers are great at obeying the “Chekhov’s gun” rule of making sure that anything they introduce becomes significant to the plot (a lottery ticket, a yappy dog, a peanut allergy). I love how the episodes are directed as well: in the third segment,“The Stall,” Charlie lands in Texas, working for the Boyle brothers at the barbecue restaurant. One of them teaches her all about the different types of wood they use to smoke the meats. When she uses the knowledge to uncover a murder, the whole thing is hilariously scored.
Poker Face has a blast skewering different milieus. Episode 4, “Rest in Metal,” features Chloe Sevigny as the lead singer of a has-been heavy metal band desperately seeking a comeback. She and her aging bandmates decide to kill the eager young roadie they hired and steal the song he wrote that is better than any of the dreck they seem to come up with. It is a catchy song, and it leads to one of the better final punchlines. I’m especially fond of “Time of the Monkey” because the guest stars, Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson, are great favorites of mine and because this episode contains a series of clever plot reversals that really throw Charlie and the audience for a loop. It concerns two elderly women in a retirement community who have been friends since they joined an “SDS” type of organization and fell for its charismatic leader. I’ll say no more about this one, except that it features a great cameo by an orangutan.
“Exit Stage Death” is a hilarious homage to bad dinner theatre. Ellen Barkin and Tim Meadows play former co-stars of an 80’s TV procedural called Spooky and the Cop, sworn enemies who reunite for a one-night-only performance of Ghosts of Pensacola, a send-up of Southern Gothic drama that the writers must have had a lot of fun devising. The opening segment is well-played and full of twists; unfortunately, I’m currently doing research for my next Miss Marple ranking, and this episode borrows one of the tricks Christie uses in that novel, which I recognized immediately. Ah, the downside of being well-read!
“The Future of the Sport” finds Charlie working in a Tennessee arcade where she befriends a young racecar driver named Davis McDowell (Charles Melton). Davis is the mortal enemy of a veteran racer named Keith Owens (Tim Blake Nelson), and their competition to out-best each other takes on a dark turn. While this story plays out differently from the usual plot, it’s the first false step for me – maybe because it amounts to more of an Aesop-ian morality tale than a good mystery, and Charlie’s handing down of justice feels too heavy-handed.
Things return to form in “The Orpheus Syndrome,” partly due to the star power of guest stars Nick Nolte, Cherry Jones and Luis Guzman, but the intriguing setting of visual effects for horror movies adds to the pleasures of this one (there’s some great model and effects work here), and the script does an expert job of widening the lens of understanding about what is going on with each succeeding scene. The climax shows why Cherry Jones deserves every Tony award she ever won!
The first season continues on a high note to the end. “Escape from Shit Mountain” is less an inverted mystery and more a one-hour, four-character, Coen Brothers movie. Set in various locations in the Colorado mountains and co-starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Castaneda, and Stephanie Hsu, it’s an ultra-violent, ultra-twisty, darkly funny wild ride that puts poor Charlie through the toughest paces she has had to endure all season. And the final episode, “The Hook,” brings the season-long arc of Charlie’s flight from Vegas to a satisfying conclusion. Captured at last by Cliff LeGrand, she is brought face to face with Sterling Frost, Sr. (Ron Perlman) in the Atlantic City casino of one of Frost’s biggest rivals. Everyone has a surprising agenda here, the phrase “out of the frying pan, into the fire” comes handily to mind, and if you want to see Chekhov’s Gun perfectly embodied, keep your eyes on the plastic, puffy, purple penis ring . . .
Suffice it to say, the stage is set for a second season of Poker Face fun – which has already been announced. The problem for me lies with Peacock which, aside from this wonderful series, seems like a monthly fee poorly spent. And so we trudge on, from streaming service to streaming service, from one trial period to another, hopping about in order to see only the shows we like. Frankly, it’s exhausting! It makes me long for the halcyon days when all I needed to do was circle my picks in the TV Guide!
25 thoughts on “CAN’T SEE MY, CAN’T SEE MY . . . POKER FACE”
Brad – It was déjà vu reading this post (e.g., expensive cable with many channels and nothing interesting to watch, expensive subscriptions to Netflix and Hulu with too little content of interest, etc.). When I subscribed to Hulu to watch the wonderful Only Murders in the Building, I somehow got Peacock included for free and then I discovered ‘Poker Face’.
I am not a fan of inverted mysteries in GAD fiction. I like my murder mysteries with the culprit revealed at the end in a way that takes me by complete surprise. Columbo is okay (e.g., the episodes respectively where Ruth Gordon and Janet Leigh are the villains are both excellent and sad), but the show quickly becomes repetitive with another arrogant murderer played by a celebrity actor.
Poker Face indeed is a tribute to Columbo even using a similar font with the series credits at the start of each episode. Natasha Lyonne lights up the screen and I love Charlie’s talent for calling out liars. This is must-watch television for murder mystery enthusiasts. Some of the episodes are a bit darker and violent than I would watch normally, but all of them are clever and well done. Looking forward to series 2 with Rhea Perlman as the baddie.
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I think we’re brothers here. The formula on Columbo quickly grew tiresome to me. Thanks for the recommendations of the two episodes, though; I’ll look them up. I agree with you about the violence on PF; fortunately, it’s leavened with humor or emotion (or both!), so it feels earned. And it has purpose, i.e., the guy who throws himself off the balcony does so for a clever reason.
I think the whole streaming service fee thing is a rip off, especially when I have to pay $12 a month more for HBO Max when I already pay extra for HBO! So, I’m ignoring that one for now, but I’m going to have to do a lot of thinking when the new Harry Potter series comes around!
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Am curious, have you seen Only Murders in the Building (seasons 1 and 2, with 3 coming)? It is different in tone and style than Poker Face, but I enjoyed it. The whodunnit aspects are good and Steve Martin/Martin Short/Selena Gomez are an unlikely team but wonderful, nonetheless.
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Actually, this whole streaming service situation began with OMitB! Fortunately, my brother was able to put me on his service as”Unca Brad,” and I how got to watch it. I think season one was wonderful. I think season two was less wonderful, although the three leads were still charming. But I’m very excited for season three, which is a theatrical mystery and features Meryl Streep! It can’t get much better than that!
And I think, buying large, the Netflix mystery series have been the most disappointing. A good friend just recommended Bosch on Amazon Prime, and while I have heard mixed things about it, I will probably give that one a try. I tend to turn to Prime the least often for a series.
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I will check out Bosch on Amazon Prime. That is a new one for me.
One last suggestion for now. Have you seen Magpie Murders on Amazon Prime (an adaptation of the Anthony Horowitz novel)? Lesley Manville, Tim McMullan and the whole production shifting from the real world to the fictional one are excellent. Really enjoyed that one and highly recommended. Apparently, Horowitz’s sequel, Moonflower Murders, will be adapted with those two lead actors.
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I don’t know why, because I love Horowitz and I loved the book, but I didn’t get on with that series. Maybe the story was still too fresh for me. I haven’t read Moonflower Murders yet I actually got halfway through and stopped, so I will have to start over.
And here’s a funny little coincidence: I saw this message from you, as I was leaving and appliance store, trying to get some information on new refrigerators. I asked what brand they would recommend, and they said – wait for it – Bosch!!
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Big fan of Bosch too. Though based on the books, it does deviate quite considerably from them (but with Connolly as one of the show’s writers, so no outcry required). My Mum is a huge fan of the show and the books and it is incredibly binge-able!
$265/month? Really??? Unless you are gung-ho on live sports, aren’t there more reasonably priced non-cable options available in California, like Roku?
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I could care less about live sports. My mom has Roku, but she still pays about the same as me for Comcast – and her building has so much concrete in its walls that her Internet is terrible!!
I didn’t think you’d care much about live sports :-). That Comcast rate is insane. It’s about triple what I pay for Comcast extended cable + Internet (though I have none of those Premium things). And I live in Philly, where Comcast is headquartered.
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I was just about to moan about Poker Face not being available in the UK yet, but it literally came to “NOWtv” today, so that’s nice.
Unfortunately I dislike subscription services on principle and it doesn’t even have a free trial… oh well.
Glad you enjoyed it so much, especially if a Columbo-style format isn’t a guaranteed winner for you!
I really look forward to seeing this somehow (not on any of the series I currently subscribe to) as I love what Johnsin did with his Blanc movies. On the other hand, love COLUMBO so sorry to hear it being dissed. Still think it’s the best detective show of its era. But you were only ever meant to watch an episode every six weeks or so. If you watch them close together it’s just to rich and too restricted a diet. Back in my blogging days, I did a list of my favourites and I stand by it (and yes, FORGOTTEN LADY with Janet Leigh and TRY AND CATCH ME with Ruth Gordon are both excellent). Here us a link to my old post:
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Yes – fair observation that Columbo was not meant for binge watching. Thanks for the link to your previous post. I will check out the episodes from your favorites list, including the ones with Faye Dunaway, Anne Baxter as well as Patrick McGoohan.
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Dissed? This is merely my own opinion, based on viewing a handful of episodes decades ago. This was in rotation with McMillan and Wife (which I loved until I tried watch it it again a few years ago) and the one with Dennis Weaver that I never saw. I don’t think I’ve seen any of the episodes that you list as your favorites, and I look forward to giving them a try. I also remember one episode, which I believe, was set on an airplane, where we do not find out who the killer is until the end. I don’t think that one gets much praise, but I want to find that one again, too.
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I am of course now desperate to get us to do a Columbo screen draft!!! Colimbo on a plane? I think your memory is playing a small trick on you. There isn’t one on an airplane per se, though in the official pilot (pardon the pun), RANSOM FOR A DEAD MAN featuring Lee Grant, she does give Columbo a flying lesson in her private plane. But she is the killer from the start. Only two episodes are presented as whodunits: DOUBLE SHOCK, featuring Martin Landau as twins, which is a great idea as you think you know who did it but actually you don’t, until the very clever finale; the other one, which I think is the one you are probably thinking of, is largely set on boats rather than planes, LAST SALUTE TO THE COMMODORE (directed by Patrick McGoohan). This starts like a regular episode but then it becomes a whodunit – they deliberately tried a different approach on this one as it was felt it might be the end of the series as the title suggests. But it kept being renewed.
Sergio – thanks for recommending the episode, Requiem for a Falling Star, which I just finished watching. Anne Baxter sparkles as the villain and even has a Desmond-like, eminently noirish character name of Nora Chandler. Her luminous back-and-forth with Falk is remarkable even by Columbo standards of detective and suspect. And yet she manages to steal every scene in which she appears. Excellent recommendation.
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Really glad you liked it Scott. And of course it even has that cameo by Edith Head for that Sunset Boulevard feel 😁
I really enjoyed Poker Face even though it isn’t stellar in terms of the mysteries. It’s more just a fun quirky show, and each episode has its highlights. The Staplehead song has this awesome intro, and I’m glad to hear you appreciated it too. There’s also this delightful campy over-acting by the character with the club foot in Exit Stage Death. I still chuckle about that.
Haven’t yet caught POKER FACE, but right now I’m a few years behind on EVERYTHING! I do have a slightly different take on the Rian Johnson films, which I did manage to catch. I do agree that GLASS ONION was rather fatally transparent— despite some very enjoyable plot details— due to its central deception being just one more (no more deceptive) use of what I call GAD plot device 1A. At the moment it was first set up, I was thinking “Oh, dear Lord, don’t let it be…” and sadly, it was. It’s alright to have an idiot culprit, but that’s still no reason for the author to not deceive us.
But with, KNIVES OUT, I felt it was a very different situation. True, the device Johnson employed (the whodunit disguised as inverted crime story) had been used before (by Berkeley, Christie, and others), but it is not nearly as shopworn a device as “GAD plot device 1A,” and I thought it was both effective and deceptive here. I realize it was transparent to you, Brad, but different works are transparent to different people (as I’ve mentioned, I found A Murder is Announced disappointingly transparent… due to its being just one more variation on GAD plot device 1A, though admittedly a cleverer variation than Johnson’s). I think most people were wowed by the plot of KNIVES OUT, and I also believe it was a wow well-earned.
As for COLUMBO, I enjoy the series, but I feel it’s often overrated due to a pre-conceived affection for the character (well, even more, just the basic Falk persona, which I believe is even more adored than the sometimes less likable Columbo character), and the premise. One fault I often feel with he series is a lack of economy. This was made clear to me when I started watching MONK— an admittedly flawed series, but one that at its best was able to provide a tremendous wealth of plotting and characterization in a much tighter pattern than COLUMBO did… at times even achieving that rare feat of providing humor and clueing in the very same moment or line. The humor/characterization and plotting of COLUMBO were not only delivered exclusively of each other, but quite often not nearly as concisely as possible. And sometimes I’m disappointed to find that after an hour and a half, the manner in which the smug murderer is trapped lacks cleverness— it’s a long wait for a dud cartridge . This is not to deny that at it’s best COLUMBO was a rather wonderful show. But I will say that I found binge watching MONK is a far more enjoyable experience than doing the same with COLUMBO.
There hasn’t been a decent TV show in the US for over twenty years. Entertainment, as it were, ceased to exist as of 2016. Everything produced nowadays is preachy, woke, or a terrible remake of a much better original.
I don’t subscribe to any cable service, Netflix or anything else. The only thing worthwhile are the British shows, imho, but even some of them are getting “woke” unfortunately.
One of my favorite shows, Unforgotten lost its main star, Nichola Walker and the following season ran with a hateful, racist story about three generations of Black “victims” (aka “losers) who blame their lot entirely on a White man. UGH…seriously.
So I find most teevee totally unwatchable these days. If it weren’t for old shows I wouldn’t watch any of it.
Why not go to them instead of waiting for the show to come to you? For example, typing series names into search engines? Then watch for free. I just can not understand.
Without going down some dark hole, the only way to watch a series is to find out where it streams and go there. If the service provider has a “free trial,” I could watch a series for free and then opt out of the service. I’m sure this is done a lot, but it requires keeping track a lot, too. “Ms. Ma Nemesis,” “Sven Hjerson,” “Les Petits Meurtres d’Agatha Christie,” “Poker Face,” “Only Murders in the Building” and “Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?” are all shows I want to see, and they appear on SIX different streaming services. If you’re hinting at illegal services that provide access to all these in one spot for free, I’d rather not hear about those in this space.
I’m just asking out of pure curiosity. Is it a bad thing to take advantage of technology instead of paying for all these services? Who is it hurting? Does that make you feel like a thief? And why doesn’t it make me feel this way? Do you live on a higher moral level than I do?
Currently, we are in the midst of dual writers’ and actors’ strikes because neither faction are getting a fair share of the profits made by studios on projects that play in theaters and especially on streaming services. So it’s hard for me to argue that when I pay to stream a movie or series, I am paying the people who created that piece of art, just as I would hope to be paying them by buying my ticket to sit in a cinema and watch. But that is my intent. I’m not saying that puts me on a higher moral ground than the person who does not see a need to pay others for their art. But, personally, it makes me feel better than if I were to pirate/torrent/stream illegally any of their product. To each their own.
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