What makes “Poker Face” a triumph

Like a local news show or a piece of Russian propaganda, its first season Poker face portrays the United States as infested with liars and murderers. Each episode of Peacock’s mystery series depicts horrors like fratricide and fraud in classic American locations: a Nevada casino, a smokehouse in Texas, a ski resort in Colorado. The show’s heroine, Charlie Cale (played by Natasha Lyonne), possesses an uncanny, possibly mystical talent for detecting bullshit, whether spewed by hot race drivers or kindly old ladies. “Everybody lies all the time,” he says. “They are like chirping birds.”

And yet, as this week’s season finale climaxed with shots of a highway cutting through orange-toned fields, it inspired an opposite sentiment: hope in the American dream. The brutality contained in Poker faceIts 10 episodes are balanced by humor, humanity, intelligence and, perhaps most crucially, optimism. The fact that the show is a success speaks to a hunger for fun that offsets cruelty and kindness. In Poker faceIn America, justice depends less on vigilantism or the law than on ordinary people making authentic connections with each other. (I won’t spoil any major plot details.)

Poker faceIts message stems from its masterful construction. Each episode begins with the depiction of a crime. Charlie then puts puzzle pieces together that the viewer already understands. That means that to make the show entertaining, its creators—executive producer Rian Johnson and hosts Nora and Lilla Zuckerman—had to focus, entertainment. Sharp dialogues, memorable jokes, strong graphics and lovable characters replace the classic suspense formulas. Episodes make time for formal detours (a Smell-O-Vision-like montage, a creature-like sequence) and wandering table-space banter. At a deep, structural level, every little detail matters.

This suits me Poker facehis deviation from a morally dubious cultural trend: true crime. Whether through a podcast about a real-life killer or a documentary about a Silicon Valley con artist, streaming-era storytelling has endlessly profited from the study of terrible people doing terrible things. There’s nothing new about screwing up creeps, but True Crime Explosion presumes to expose reality while actually twisting it into the shape of a sleek, propulsive thriller. By making criminals so central, series such as Inventing Anna and Dahmer inevitably to humanize and charm them. Serving secondary roles, the victims are flattened into tragic, unfortunate characters. We’re left with the elegant reinforcement of a sad truth: Because our society is built on trust, liars—even killer liars—can get very far. These stories are presented as cautionary tales, but they are really instructional packages.

In Poker face, the villains are also humanized, but with different results. The first parts of many episodes zoom in on mundane existences: the Peloton-and-food-delivery routine of a rich man under house arrest, the concern of radical activists living in a nursing home. Eventually, the stories of these killers come to light – but usually only to highlight the pathetic hypocrisies behind their wrongdoing. Ostensibly noble motives for murder—love, revenge, justice—are discussed, but they tend to be flimsy covers for greed and self-interest. In the season finale, a character gives a speech about how they betray someone else because they have been grossly mistreated. But their ultimate motivation for pulling the trigger is to own a yacht.

Against this cynicism is Charlie, a racist racist 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 buff than by her genuine relationships with the people affected (though at one point this season, she enlists a murder-solving podcaster to help her). The finale, in which he turns down offers of employment from various organizations in need of a truth finder, shows that he stays on the road, helping others, simply because he wants to. Revealing a piece of her history and family history, the finale also implies that she has made sacrifices to continue using her talents. Like a crusading cowboy or a lone superhero, the price of a righteous life is rootlessness.

Unlike traditional Hollywood heroes, however, Charlie never assumes she can do the job alone. Each episode, she makes allies that are as intensely attractive as the killer and herself. Mechanics, waiters, and drifters are all brought to life by spicy writing and top-notch casting (veterans like Nick Nolte and up-and-comers like Everything Everywhere SimultaneouslyStephanie Hsu makes appearances). Very often, one of these friends turns out to be the episode’s murder victim. The fact that Charlie knows them so well makes their deaths meaningful to both the show’s hero and its audience. It also gives purpose—and a narrative arc—to the supporting characters who help solve Charlie’s crime. Although villains are everywhere, its magic Poker face it’s that it makes them seem less than decent people.

And magic, sure, is a big part of the show. Charlie’s lie-busting powers are inexplicable and infallible, and therefore, we must assume, somehow supernatural. So, too, is her pattern (curse?) of tripping over murder wherever she goes. In the finale, she even gains a glowing, lewd amulet that guides her quest. I think of a time before the true crime wave, when Columbus and He wrote murder approach grim realities with drawn-out whimsy and heart, Poker face it is a fantasy with love, excitement. We don’t live in the country the show depicts, but in a strange way, we should wish we did.

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