once upon time, most of the television was like Poker facethe new peacock drama created by glass onion‘s rian johnson and starring Russian doll‘s natasha lyonne. It is a purely episodic program, of the case of the week. Each episode sets up its own specific story, which Lyonne’s Charlie Cale finds a way to wrap up at the end of the hour. There are some extremely loose running threads, but in theory you could watch all but the first episode in any order and enjoy each one the same way. It’s a show that leans heavily on its star’s appeal and the ability of Johnson and the other writers and directors to make each individual story so engaging that you’ll want to come back for more without any real clues. To be continue.

For decades, that’s how television worked. Then along the cam The wire, breaking bad, game of Thrones, etc., and suddenly the case for the week is over: simplistic stuff from a time before we knew TV could be better. Serialization was the new king, and if each episode didn’t contribute in some way to a bigger story, what was the point?

In many ways, television has gained a lot from this change. The best shows of this century have been able to aim higher, go deeper, and make incredible use of the sheer amount of time it offers to tell a story about a set of characters over the years. But in other ways, we’ve really lost something. Serialization has become as much of a formula as purely episodic storytelling used to be. Too many showrunners, whether they’re screenwriters trying to stretch the plot of a movie they couldn’t sell, or just someone who learned all the wrong lessons from watching. The sopranosor i thought it would be easy to just copy breaking badThe structure of: wrongly assumes that an ongoing narrative is fundamentally interesting just because it lasts for an entire season or an entire series. Complexity is seen as rewarding for its own sake, and not because it adds value to the story being told. So we get these long, amorphous sludges: “It’s a 10-hour movie!” —who forget how to entertain because all they care about is forward momentum.

So thank goodness for Johnson, Lyonne and everyone else involved in making Poker face. It deploys all the best elements of the earlier days, but in a way that makes the show feel thoroughly modern, in the same way that knives out Y glass onion are inspired by the mysteries of Agatha Christie without feeling like dusty period pieces.

We learn that Charlie was once an unbeatable poker player thanks to an unusual, essentially superhuman ability: she can always tell when someone is lying. Eventually, she fell out with the wrong people and now works as a waitress in a Nevada casino, trying to stay out of trouble. But as is the case with these kinds of shows, her problems inevitably keep finding her, always in the form of a murder that only she can solve, because she knows the killer is full of it.

The format is a mix of the classic. colombo opened mystery and the approach Johnson has taken with the Benoit Blanc films. Each episode begins with 10-15 minutes without Charlie, as we meet the murderers and their victims and see how and why the murder occurred. The stories then flash back to show how Charlie already knew these characters, before we can finally figure out what happened, as well as a way to get the bad guys to see justice, even though Charlie isn’t a cop and in fact has She has to stay outside the law because the events of the first episode make her a fugitive who has to travel anonymously from town to town. (The only ongoing element is that she is being chased across the country by a casino enforcer, played by Benjamin Bratt, due to the events of the pilot, but even that is relatively minor and infrequent in the episodes given to critics.)

Lil Rel Howery as Taffy in ‘Poker Face.’

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The settings and types of guest stars vary wildly from episode to episode. In one, she has a job at a Texas barbecue run by Lil Rel Howery; in another, she’s a roadie for a wonderful one-hit heavy metal band where Chloe Sevigny is the old leader desperate to return.

Although there was already a bit of Peter Falk’s Lieutenant Columbo in Lyonne’s Russian doll performance, Charlie is a very different type of character: friendly and curious about people and the world around her. It’s an absolutely magnetic and winning performance, with her being just as good at soloing, for example, testing various types of wood to identify one of Lil Rel’s lies, as she is interacting with amazing guest stars like hong bye (like an antisocial long haul trucker) or ellen barkin (Like an eighties TV star now performing at a dinner theater).

And just like White’s movies, this is a show that uses every part of the buffalo. No matter how throwaway a scene seems, say Charlie having a funny run-in with a stranger in a trash can, it will eventually turn out to have some kind of plot significance. It’s all damn clever, including the many ways it manages to demonstrate the limits of being a human lie detector, and a light one on its feet.

That being said, because programs like Poker face have become so rare – or, at least, some like this that are also executed so well – there is a risk of over-praising it. Like any episodic drama, some episodes are stronger than others, particularly in Lyonne’s free opening sequences. The fifth episode, for example, features Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson as former ’70s revolutionaries who are now the two toughest, baddest girls in their retirement community; the combination of that premise and these great veteran actors is so strong that I almost forgot she was waiting for Charlie. But the second episode, which involves a trio of people working the night shift at the shops next door to a truck stop, only really takes off once that familiar mop of reddish-blonde hair shows up. And even when she does show up, the flashback segments can occasionally leave you impatient to get to the part where Charlie starts poking holes in the killer’s story. (colombo episodes tended to be between 70 and 100 minutes long, and thus had more than enough time for Falk and the guest stars to interact; after a 67-minute debut episode that has to establish Charlie’s backstory and premise, all others are an hour or less long, sometimes significantly less).

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But damn, what a relief and pleasure it is to see a TV show that really wants to be a TV show, and knows how to do it at this high level. Johnson and Lyonne have said what would you like to do Poker face for as long as possible. Here’s hoping they get a chance. This is wonderful.

The first four episodes of Poker face will begin airing January 26 on Peacock, with additional episodes to be released weekly. I have seen the first six of 10 episodes.

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