We love-love 'Poker Face', P-P-'Poker Face'
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LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
The very entertaining "Poker Face" is an offbeat, case-of-the-week mystery show, where a dryly witty, down-to-earth oddball solves murders. It's from the mind of Rian Johnson, who's fresh off the movie "Glass Onion." And it's the kind of thing that flourished on television for decades but is harder to find now.
AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
And at the center of all these mysteries is Natasha Lyonne. She's perfectly suited, as it turns out, to be a modern Columbo. I'm Aisha Harris.
HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. And today we're talking about the Peacock series "Poker Face" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR FROM NPR.
Joining me and Aisha today is our POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR co-host Glen Weldon. Hi, Glen.
GLEN WELDON, HOST:
Ma-ma-ma-ma (ph). Hey, Linda.
HOLMES: Ah. You took my greeting.
WELDON: See; it was either that or bluffing with my muffin, and I think I made the right choice.
HOLMES: So "Poker Face" was created by Rian Johnson, whose films include "Glass Onion" and "Knives Out," not to mention the Star Wars entry "The Last Jedi." It stars Natasha Lyonne as Charlie, who's working in a Nevada casino, and she gets mixed up in some very dirty deeds committed by her boss, played by Adrien Brody, and his henchman, played by Benjamin Bratt. So Charlie goes on the run. And from there, each episode takes her to a different place, where there just happens to be a crime to solve. Charlie has a special talent for knowing when people are lying. But more than that, she has an uncanny ability to get people to open up to her. Along the way, she meets up with a genuinely impressive array of guest stars. Among them are Lil Rel Howery, Hong Chau, Ellen Barkin, Tim Meadows, Tim Blake Nelson, Judith Light and frequent Rian Johnson collaborator Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Those are just some of the familiar faces. The show is streaming now on Peacock. It's a show that I love and have written about.
Glen, what did you think?
WELDON: Oh, man, I'm in. I was so in from the opening credits, which, if y'all haven't seen them, are this Dijon mustard yellow, squarish typeface that couldn't scream 1978 any louder if it was wearing hot pants. And who knew? Who knew that you can induce a purely physiological reaction in my damn body, one that bypasses all the higher brain functions, simply by listing the year of production in Roman numerals? (Laughter) There's something that happens to me.
HOLMES: It is literally the "Columbo" font almost exactly, almost exactly.
WELDON: This is a howcatchem, is the term that people use, which means that the murder in question is revealed at the top, as you say, and we learn how Charlie unpacks it. So this means that the murders can never be crimes of passion, right? They always have to be very meticulously constructed. And let's just be real here. They tend to be overcomplicated. But that's for a reason. That's so that she can peel away the layers of the onion in stages, not all at once, over the course of an episode. And that is a pleasure to watch. Yeah, I'm in.
HOLMES: All right. Awesome. How about you, Aisha?
HARRIS: Oh, yes, so very, very in. I still have yet to watch "Columbo." I know I need to. How have I not? But I have watched a lot of "Murder, She Wrote." And this is also giving some Jessica Fletcher vibes.
HARRIS: Unlike "Columbo," though, where he's actually a detective, and Jessica Fletcher, who kind of runs in these elite circles in toney, mostly rural suburban towns, the Natasha Lyonne character as Charlie is a drifter. She's on the run. First of all, Natasha Lyonne as a performer, she's like this old soul in a young person's body, very "Russian Doll." If you loved "Russian Doll," you're going to love this, I think, as well because there's a lot of the same sort of offbeat, shaggy quality to her and how she interacts with people. And part of what makes this so fun to watch is the fact that, like, you see the way in which she interacts with people. She gets people to open up to her very easily because she's just, like, willing to chat with anyone who's around. And even though the first episode is about these casino owners and wealthy people, the rest of the show is really about the little people, those who are kind of on the fringes or the outsiders.
So, like, the off-the-grid truck driver, the security guy, the stagehand - these are people who are just, you know, average people we would all deal with on a day-to-day basis, and she just gets along with them so well. And so she's able to figure out the clues and the crime by just chatting with those people and getting them to just - unknowingly, to give up some information that cues her off and sets her on the path to figuring out these murders. So I think it's just so fun. And it's taking something we're all familiar with and putting a new twist on it in a way that's just delightful. And again, put Natasha Lyonne in everything. I'm going to watch it.
HOLMES: Yeah. You know, it's funny because I think if you've seen "Glass Onion" and "Knives Out" - you know, Rian Johnson has talked about "Columbo" as an inspiration before because "Columbo" is a show that always starts with - you see the murder, you see what happens, and then you see him come in and investigate so that you are not in the dark about happened. And those two films both have that interesting structure where they don't spring all the information at the end.
HOLMES: They kind of give you big reveals along the way that cause you to see the story in a new light. And that's sort of part of what "Columbo" is. So it's not surprising to me that he eventually went back and was like, I'm just going to make a show in the spirit of "Columbo," right? What he did here that is so smart is that he connected with Natasha Lyonne, who is a creative but also shares, with Peter Falk, that kind of weary but sort of gentle quality of, like you said, somebody who people just want to talk to.
You know, as you mentioned, Aisha, there is a lot of "Russian Doll" in her character here. She's not an actor who tends to kind of disappear into characters, where you think like, oh, I never would have thought that was her. She brings herself to everything that she does. Her voice is very distinctive. She's always herself. But I do think that Charlie is a little bit happier than her character in "Russian Doll," a little more sort of - she's a little less angsty all the time, which I think makes a really interesting addition to her repertoire. And one of the things that I like about the way that she handles this character and the way that it's - the character is handled in the writing - and some of these episodes Rian Johnson wrote, and some he didn't. The initial kind of gimmick or hook or whatever you want to call it, Charlie is working in this casino because she has a sort of a special ability to tell whether people are lying.
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ADRIEN BRODY: (As Sterling Frost Jr.) It's not like it's one thing, like my eye twitches or something.
NATASHA LYONNE: (As Charlie Cale) Nah.
BRODY: (As Sterling Frost Jr.) It's just a general - you can just tell.
LYONNE: (As Charlie Cale) Just that something is off. That's the best way to describe it. I can just tell.
BRODY: (As Sterling Frost Jr.) When anyone is lying, 100% of the time?
HOLMES: When you first kind of learn about that, you think, well, is that just going to be a deus ex machina in every single episode where, you know, she figures out what happened because she has this special ability, and that dominates the whole thing? Honestly, the farther they go into this show, the less that's used...
HOLMES: ...To the point where I kind of forgot about it until it would come up in, typically, not a big lie but a small lie.
WELDON: That's it.
HOLMES: It's not that the person says, well, I didn't kill him, and she says, you're lying. It's that the person says, you know, I came out of the house, and, you know, I turned left, and I went down here, and she knows that you turned right. And then she tries to figure out, well, why are you lying about that? So that ability, I was really glad they don't make her a superhero-type person because that doesn't actually come up all that much.
WELDON: That's the important thing, right? Because her characterizing detail is her vibe, her attitude.
WELDON: And it's that attitude that's important, as Aisha said, because one of the last things you learn about the structure of the show is that every week, as you're watching the murderer do the murder, Charlie is not going to swoop in suddenly and say, j'accuse, you know?
HARRIS: (Laughter) Right.
WELDON: She is probably already there in the mix, just off-screen, at the barbecue pit, at the merch table. She doesn't solve things like a detective 'cause she's motivated purely by personal relationships, not some kind of sense of civic duty. She is not a cop.
WELDON: She's not even Jessica Fletcher-adjacent coppiness (ph). She has been personally wronged...
WELDON: ...And needs those responsible to own up to it.
HOLMES: She's motivated typically by either someone was harmed who she cares about - the person was the victim of whatever happened - or the person has been accused, and she is taking sort of up the situation on their behalf. She is driven by her kind of personal investment in people. Aisha, I want to ask you, do you have a favorite of these episodes?
HARRIS: Oh, man, it's so hard to choose. I really loved "Rest In Metal," which features Chloe Sevigny as the lead singer of a heavy metal rock group that had, like, one hit and is really struggling to try and, like, continue to have a career and are searching for their next big hit. And to your point, Linda, about it not just being about her ability to tell lies, in that episode - I won't give it away, but her talking to someone who was kind of in the background of everything that's happening, who she befriended, and him explaining a technical thing that he understands, but she doesn't, is kind of what leads her to figure out how the murder in that episode happened. And again, it's just an example of her just being super friendly with these people who don't really always get their due for, like, their knowledge of what they're able to do and their expertise. So she's really relying on other people's expertise to figure out what is happening.
And I also just love the way that, while each episode is different, a different murder case of the week, there are little things that connect the dots. Like, yes, there's her being on the run. That kind of comes up not every episode, but it does show up sometimes. In one episode, she learns super glue is good for melding a wound or, like, helping to close it, and then it comes back again later on.
HARRIS: I love those little details where, yes, you could just drop in and just start it at any episode. But I also think it really benefits the viewer to watch it in the order that it is because there are those little details.
HARRIS: And it's serialized, but it's not, in the best way possible.
HOLMES: Right, exactly. Glen, how about you - episodes that you particularly liked?
WELDON: Well, I mean, basically, it's the nursing home one because I'm here for Judith Light scrambling up a wall, you know?
WELDON: I mean, that's - and the appeal of the guest stars on the show is so pure 'cause it doesn't really matter who they are; what matters is the fun in seeing how they fit into this formula, what they bring. You don't actually watch for who they are; you watch for what they're bringing, how game they are, how much they play along. That said, you know, this is an anthology, so some episodes are going to hit harder than others. But it also reminded me of something I first thought about - you know, you mentioned briefly in passing superheroes. Like, I love Batman. I don't love what every writer does with Batman. There's the appeal of the iconography - costume, powers, gadgets. And then when all that gets bogged down into a specific machinations of plot, sometimes it just loses me. It doesn't feel as direct. And I used to assume that was something about the visual nature of comics, you know, the purely visual appeal. Like, it's about the costume, whatever. This helped me realize it's about characterizing details, right?
So there's Sherlock Holmes, and there's "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes." There's - this is true with Miss Marple, Poirot, Superman, Spiderman, Columbo, Jessica Fletcher, James Bond, Bugs Bunny. People say they love stories, but I think what I respond to more deeply is characters. And Charlie's character is that attitude, the voice, the hair, the superpower, which, as you both mentioned, isn't an afterthought, but it's not what the show is about. And of course, the car. It's a great car.
HARRIS: It's a great car. Yes (laughter).
HOLMES: And the sunglasses.
WELDON: And the sunglasses, yeah.
HOLMES: There is so much style in this show. You know, it was so funny because somebody on Twitter talked to me about watching this show and the fact that it was really - they found it really pleasant. And I realized that I had almost mentioned when I wrote about it that it's just a pleasant experience watching it. And I want to talk just for a second about tone because there's a moment in this show when a dog does not die that I thought to myself - I really thought for a second that that dog was going to die. And you realize this is the show where the dog doesn't die and not the show where the dog dies...
HOLMES: ...Because those are two very different tones. And even in a show about murder - even in a show about murder - and even in a show where some very sad things happen, the tone of this show is mostly pretty gentle, easy on the system, I find - easy on my system. I don't find it stressful to watch. You know, Glen mentioned this lineup of guest stars, and I think it is so lovely to see how people are used in this universe in really fun ways. Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson playing, you know, women who have known each other for ages and ages and are living in this retirement community - I loved both of them. I love this use of Lil Rel Howery as this kind of huckster barbecue guy...
HARRIS: Yes, he's perfect.
HOLMES: ...Who has a kind of more darkness to his personality than most Lil Rel Howery characters. Aisha talked about the episode with Chloe Sevigny and her band. And the other thing I think is so lovely about that episode is that, also in her band, is John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, who has really never done any acting but is a very kind of offbeat, interesting dude, and somehow the idea came together to put Darnielle in this show, playing a member of the band. And he's great. It is such a nice confluence of people doing good and fun work, really undergirded by this wonderful Natasha Lyonne performance that I think is so great.
I also love just the look of this show. A good part of this show is desert based. Rian Johnson is partly known or was partly known in the early part of his television time for a couple of episodes of "Breaking Bad," one of which is "Ozymandias," which happens, kind of a lot of it, out in the desert. It's this very menacing idea of the desert. Here you see a lot of both kind of in where Charlie comes from. You have this kind of desert setting. He's one of those people who, when he's directing, when he's developing a show, really knows how to make desolate places seem oddly inviting. You know, a rest stop by the side of the road can really seem like it has its own vitality. In the rest stop on the interstate kind of part of this, that's also the episode that has Hong Chau, who was just nominated for an Oscar in "The Whale." I think she's way more interesting in this than she is in "The Whale."
HARRIS: Oh, so much more (laughter).
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HONG CHAU: (As Marge) First time I cried, I was watching "Bambi."
LYONNE: (As Charlie Cale) Oh.
CHAU: (As Marge) I'm getting not-going-to-hook-up vibes.
LYONNE: (As Charlie Cale) Yeah, I don't think so.
CHAU: (As Marge) You want to go to the roadhouse, then? They got three for 10.
HOLMES: And it's such an interesting, I think, use of her and so unexpected in so many ways. I really like the way he's handling actors. I really like the way that he writes these mysteries. You know, there's just - there's something about this that is just a nice watch.
HARRIS: I just keep coming back to this idea of empathy and how both the Charlie character and just the way all of these characters, at least the ones who are not murderers and even some of the ones who do not turn out to be murderers, there is, like, a degree of empathy and understanding of where they are coming from. I also think of the "Rest In Metal" episode, where one of the bandmates, played by Nick Cirillo is - he is on a hundred at all times, and he's very irritating and even manages to get under Charlie's skin a little bit. But at the end of the day, she sees him for human and spends time with him and kind of treats him as he should be and is just like, yeah, you're kind of annoying, but also, I can understand you, and you're cool, and we vibe.
And I just think those little moments are part of what makes this, as you were saying, feel so pleasant and feel - you're not on the edge of your seats. It's like, it's just a fun ride. And there are twists along the way, even if you know who was murdered and how they did it. Like, there are still twists to be had. And I think that Rian Johnson and the other creators involved have said they don't - they didn't intend for this to be just one season. And I really hope that it goes on and keeps going and that Natasha Lyonne...
HOLMES: Go, go, go, go.
HARRIS: Yeah, just - I - give me nine seasons. I am in (laughter).
HOLMES: Glen, what do you think is the relevance of this as kind of a standalone-episodes show, when you and I have, in the last, you know, 12 years or so, had so many conversations about so many serialized shows?
WELDON: Yeah. I mean, I think it's trying to have some cake and eat it, too. It's a kind of undergirding story about the - who is chasing her and why. But it's also letting us have - letting us watch a puzzle get solved, as opposed to a "CSI" or a "Law & Order," where we wait for justice to be served, or somebody is going to come in and say, you're a piece of dirt because look at what you did. It's not copaganda. And that's what lets us off the hook a little bit. I think we can't ignore the degree to which this show is letting us off the hook 'cause it's not copaganda. We don't feel implicated because she is very leery of cops. She's very leery of the FBI. She is not going to rat people out. She just wants them to own up to what they did. I think that's a huge part of it.
HOLMES: Yeah, I agree with you, Glen. I think the fact that she is a regular person and not a detective and not a police officer is maybe one of the things that makes the show go down so easy for me, as I said, has that kind of pleasantness and lightness.
HARRIS: Even Jessica Fletcher worked with the cops all the time (laughter) - was, like, friends with them.
WELDON: Yeah, she did.
HARRIS: And then...
WELDON: Yeah, she did.
HARRIS: But I mean, granted, she was always proving that they were inept and not doing their job well 'cause she's the one who solved it. But still, she was - they were friends.
HOLMES: Right. For sure. All right, well, we want to know what you think about "Poker Face." Find us at facebook.com/pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Aisha Harris, Glen Weldon, I love talking to you guys. Thank you for being here.
HARRIS: Thank you, Linda.
WELDON: Thank you.
HOLMES: Well, we want to take a moment also to thank our POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR+ subscribers. We appreciate you so much for showing your support of NPR. If you haven't signed up yet and you want to show your support and you want to listen to this show without any sponsor breaks, head over to plus.npr.org/happyhour or visit the link in our show notes.
This episode was produced by Hafsa Fathima and edited by Mike Katzif. Our supervising producer is Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides our theme music. Thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Linda Holmes. And we'll see you all tomorrow.
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