Poker Face is a murder mystery that cares about killers
It's a comedy with a lot of characters, and character
Kia ora and welcome back to Rec Room, The Spinoff’s pop culture and entertainment newsletter. If you’re in the north I hope you’re staying safe and dry during Cyclone Gabrielle, and that your power stays on – you have a lot of TV watching time ahead. It’s the perfect opportunity to catch up on Poker Face on TVNZ+ and, on Netflix, Cunk on Earth and the new Pamela Anderson doco. Those recs and more in this week’s edition. Let’s dive in.
- Catherine McGregor
Poker Face is a murder mystery that cares about killers
Natasha Lyonne as Charlie in Poker Face (Image: Peacock/TVNZ+)
When we meet Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne), she’s living in a trailer on the outskirts of Las Vegas and working in a casino she once tried to fleece. Charlie, you see, was previously a successful professional poker player with an uncanny ability to tell when someone was lying – a skill that comes in handy again when she’s forced to go on the run and finds herself caught up in a series of strange murder cases. The creation of Rian Johnson (Knives Out), Poker Face takes inspiration from classic case-of-the-week TV series like Magnum PI and Quantum Leap, and features a cast of one-off guest stars including Adrien Brody, Judith Light, Chloë Sevigny, John Hodgman and Mountain Goats musician John Darnielle.
There’s one detective who comes up more than anyone in coverage of Poker Face: Columbo, the blue-collar homicide detective played by Peter Falk in the long-running TV series of the same name. Watch a clip of Falk in action and the resemblance to Lyonne is undeniable, from the shambling gait to the raspy voice, to the idiosyncratic personal style. The story structure, too, is a mirror image: Poker Face, like Columbo, eschews the classic whodunnit set-up for what Wikipedia – and, I suspect, precisely no one else – calls the “howcatchem” format. We see who committed the murder (it’s always a murder) at the start, and the fun is in watching our protagonist unravel the clues.
It’s not just the great Lieutenant Columbo that Poker Face will remind you of, though. Their milieus could hardly be more different, but there’s more than a bit of Miss Marple in Charlie Cale. Like Agatha Christie’s heroine, Charlie is an amateur sleuth with an eye for the telling detail and a curiosity about the dark side of human nature. Like her literary forebear, Charlie is regularly under-estimated – because she’s a woman, perhaps, but mostly because she doesn’t fit with people’s ideas of what a investigator looks like. And of course, both Jane and Charlie have simply rotten luck with all the murder cases they find themselves stumbling into, week after week after week.
As you can tell from these comparisons, Poker Face is not trying to reinvent the wheel. But that doesn’t really matter when the man behind the camera is Rian Johnson, the writer-director who, with the Knives Out series and before that the movies Looper and Brick, has carved a niche as Hollywood’s foremost creator of intricate puzzle-box mysteries. If Lyonne’s unique charisma is a big part of Poker Face’s success, so is Johnson’s consummate skill as a storyteller. This is clearly a series in which the details are sweated over, from the 80s-style opening credits to the groovy, retro-inspired soundtrack, featuring the likes of Tom Waits, Donald Fagen and The Louvin Brothers.
That meticulous approach is nowhere more apparent than in the characters who drift in and out of Charlie’s life as she drives her Plymouth Barracuda across the southern states. Before she makes her entrance at the start of each episode’s act two, we get around 17 minutes of set-up: we meet the victim and the murderer(s) and see how and why the deed was done. It’s not a huge amount of time, but Poker Face presents us with characters so vividly drawn, so rounded and believable, that we can’t help but be invested by the time Charlie ambles onto the screen. These people are about as far away from the stock characters of traditional murder mysteries – the philandering husband, the jealous lover, the wealthy heiress – as you can get. Take for example episode four, ‘Rest in Metal’. Anyone who’s hung around musicians will instantly recognise both Ruby (Chloë Sevigny), the bitter, washed-up lead singer of one-hit-wonder band Doxxology, and Gavin (Nicholas Cirillo), the puppyish, mentally unstable young drummer who has the misfortune of joining them on tour.
Chloë Sevigny as Ruby in Poker Face episode 4, ‘Rest in Metal’ (Photo: Peacock/TVNZ+)
And then there’s Charlie herself. On the run from her former bosses back in Vegas, she’s by necessity both a vagabond and a loner, but one who actually likes people – the world’s misfits, dreamers and lost souls in particular. It’s this amiable, freewheeling spirit, embodied by the force of nature that is Natasha Lyonne, that helps make Poker Face such a joy to watch.
I’m really reaching here – Poker Face is great – but right now the “Charlie on the run” storyline doesn’t make much sense except as a narrative strategy to keep her moving from place to place. On the other hand, you don’t hire Benjamin Bratt just to turn up in the final minutes of each episode and look menacing while Charlie slips away. There has to be more to come.
Peter Falk played Columbo for more than three decades, one of the longest starring runs in TV history. Nobody’s expecting Poker Face to be around in the 2050s – but if there’s any justice, we’ll be watching Lyonne as Charlie Cale for a few more years yet. (TVNZ+) / Catherine McGregor
Comedy rec: Cunk on Earth
I don’t exaggerate when I say that Philomena Cunk is one of the great comic creations of the 21st century. Played by actor Diane Morgan and written by Black Mirror’s Charlie Brooker, on whose satirical show the character first appeared back in 2013, Cunk is a parody of overly earnest docuseries hosts, the kind of people who walk meaningfully towards the camera and enthusiastically nod during expert interviews. Cunk might have some of the patter down, but in no way is she good at her job: she has almost no interest in the topics at hand, and is prone to hilarious, deeply inappropriate tangents. Cunk on Earth is the biggest platform for the character yet (though I’d especially recommend seeking out her previous Shakespeare special on YouTube), and its five episodes detail a not-entirely-correct history of the world, from the caveman era right up until the present day. After watching it, you’ll never hear ‘Pump Up The Jam’ the same way again. (Netflix) / Sam Brooks
Pamela Anderson in Pamela, A Love Story (Photo: Netflix)
Documentary rec: Pamela: A Love Story
One of the fastest-growing genres asks the question: “now why did we treat famous woman X like absolute crap for her entire career?” It’s happened for Britney, Whitney, Marilyn, Paris and now the latest is Pamela Anderson in Pamela: A Love Story. We meet the Baywatch bombshell in the present day at 55 years old, pottering around her lakeside home in the sleeping town of Ladysmith, Canada. She’s recently divorced (her fifth time), and now spends her days floating around the property in billowy white linen dresses like a beautiful ghost.
As she reflects on the many devastating chapters of her life, the documentary is helped tremendously by an endless well of archive material – Anderson meticulously documented her every experience, first with journals and later with extensive home video footage (stolen tapes of which would eventually come to define her entire existence). When we get into the Playboy and Baywatch years, you see how a young and traumatised girl snatched a chance to take the power back, and how quickly that power was then taken away from her.
Supercuts of lecherous talk show hosts and invasive paparazzi are nothing compared to what happens in 1995, when Anderson discovers that a private sex tape of her and then-husband Tommy Lee is being sold across the world without her permission. You’d think that years later we might have learned something but, as the documentary captures, the release of 2022 series Pam & Tommy shows that not much has changed. “I just feel sick,” Anderson says upon learning of the series. “It’s like you are just this thing that belongs to the world.”
It’s a quote that sums up much of the documentary: here is a real human person who the entire world never cared to treat as one. Extremely sad in parts and darkly funny in others (Anderson cackles as she compares her move back to her hometown of Ladysmith to “a spawning salmon coming home to die”), it’s a necessary reappraisal of a popular culture icon who can now finally reveal herself on her own terms. (Netflix) / Alex Casey
Film rec: Shotgun Wedding
Nobody loves a film about getting married more than Jennifer Lopez, it seems. The star’s latest foray into the marital movie complex (see also: The Wedding Planner, Marry Me) is a bizarre blend of screwball comedy and action movie, in which she and Josh Duhamel play a couple whose idyllic island nuptials are disrupted by a band of pirates taking the entire wedding party hostage (including a reliably dizzy Jennifer Coolidge). If it sounds like disposable trash, it kind of is, but it’s also delightful to see Lopez and Duhamel bumble their way through hostage situations as they try to take their wedding back from the pirates. Fair warning: This isn’t exactly a gorefest, but it’s still pretty violent! (Amazon Prime Video) / Sam Brooks
On The Spinoff now: The Elements of Truth trailer
Seeking to restore his political fortunes, former National MP Jami-Lee Ross joins forces with rising conspiracy theorist Billy Te Kahika Jr. ahead of the 2020 election. Watch the full documentary on The Spinoff from February 21, 2023.
I’ve spent the weekend mainlining Burt Bacharach classics in honour of the great man, who died on Friday. Here are a few stories, clips and tributes to his unimpeachable genius that are worth your time:
Burt Bacharach: An astonishing creator of impermeable classics and supersmooth pop – Alex Petridis in The Guardian.
Bacharach and his long-time collaborator Elvis Costello perform the sublime ‘God Give Me Strength’ on Letterman, February 1997.
With Dionne Warwick, running through the classics he wrote for her with songwriting partner Hal David.
‘His behavior has been troubling for years’: Inside the implosion of Rick & Morty creator Justin Roiland’s animation empire.
Mapped: All the places in NZ Ed Sheeran has given people a surprise
Prince Andrew’s disastrous BBC interview is getting the Hollywood treatment, with Rufus Sewell as the prince and Gillian Anderson as his interrogator, Emily Maitlis.
‘It’s ruder, it’s brasher’: Patriot Games host Sue Perkins tells Stewart Sowman-Lund why she loves New Zealand comedy.
A fascinating look at why the documentary boom is creating a whole new set of problems for both creators and subjects.
This new TVNZ documentary about Chinese food in New Zealand looks fantastic.
Have you been booted off Netflix yet? With the account sharing clampdown landing in NZ, it’s only a matter of time for freeloaders like me.
Another great Slate data-viz: a statistical analysis of every shirt-rip and bare butt cheek in the new Magic Mike movie, compared with its predecessors.
That’s it for Rec Room for this week. If you liked what you read, why not share Rec Room with your friends and whānau.