Rian Johnson continues to up the ante with ‘Poker Face’

Connor Youngberg, Associate Design Editor

Since filmmaker Rian Johnson took the world by storm with the “Knives Out” franchise, he’s innovated the murder mystery genre. This time, he stepped away from Benoit Blanc and transitioned into creating a new world of mysteries with “Poker Face.”

The first four episodes of “Poker Face” premiered on Jan. 26 on Peacock and then released weekly until its first season wrapped on March 9. After watching the show, it’s easy to see why it’s returning for a second season.

The murder mystery genre has been around forever. From novels to movies to television shows, the brand has existed for decades, which makes it hard for writers to create fresh stories. So many stories have already been told and the genre has become known for its large number of cliches. This forces Johnson to really think outside of the box when he’s writing a new tale.

Johnson has done a fantastic job creating unique plot points in his mysteries. For example, in “Knives Out,” one of the main characters, Marta Cabrera, could not tell a lie without throwing up. 

In “Glass Onion,” Johnson waits until halfway through the movie to reveal one of the main characters has a twin sister. In “Poker Face,” Natasha Lyonne’s character, Charlie Cale, is a human lie detector, literally calling bullshit every time she hears a lie. It’s such a creative characteristic that keeps the show feeling innovative.

The show centers around Cale, the detective of this show, which is formatted spectacularly. The first episode sets up an overarching story for the show, with Cale forced into going on the run. The following episodes are one-off mysteries that Cale solves along the way. It almost has a “Scooby Doo” vibe to it, with small doses of the overall story within every episode.

However, rather than being a classic whodunit show, it’s a howcatchem. At the beginning of every episode, the audience sees how the murder occurred and who did it. Then, we watch as Cale attempts to unfold the mystery. Although it loses the element of trying to guess the killer along with the detective, it offers a refreshing show style.

One significant contrast from Johnson’s previous mysteries is the settings. While his movies focus on people with wealth, “Poker Face” often ends up with the lead character in smaller towns with other low-income characters. It’s a drastic change from what we’re used to seeing from murder mystery media and one that allows for fresh storytelling.

As per usual with Johnson, the camera work is superb. Although Johnson doesn’t direct every episode, his techniques are seen throughout. Johnson loves handheld zooms and camera pans, which makes for such a beautiful style. It’s so campy that it fits the genre absolutely perfectly.

Although Johnson created the story, it’s brought to life by Lyonne’s stunning performance as Cale. Throughout the show, Cale remains relatively upbeat and rolls with the punches, but Lyonne’s performance shines through and becomes phenomenal when the show gets darker. It’s fun, goofy and entertaining, but then it becomes grounded and emotional. Lyonne stands out in every episode, even when surrounded by many well-known actors.

The show’s cast includes Adrien Brody, Ron Perlman, Tim Blake Nelson, Stephanie Hsu, Luis Guzmán, Jameela Jamil and long-time Johnson collaborator Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Although most of them are only in one episode, it’s awesome to see new, familiar faces who will also give a great performance.

“Poker Face” is a refreshing taste of the murder mystery genre. This howcatchem series is a fantastically well-done show full of charisma and charm, willing to get dark and emotional. Between the amazing storytelling and the wonderful visual style, Johnson once again aced a murder mystery.