P-p-p-Poker Face, p-p-Poker Face!
A whole lotta Natasha Lyonne talk this week, plus 'Shrinking' and more 'The Last of Us'
This week’s What’s Alan Watching? newsletter coming up just as soon as I traipse into the fucking forest and capture a bejeweled fucking pegasus...
P-p-p-Poker Face, p-p-p-part one!
It is apparently Poker Face Week around here, celebrating the launch of Peacock’s new mystery series, created by Rian Johnson and starring Natasha Lyonne. I already gave you my feature on the making of the series, plus a bonus Rian Johnson Q&A. This week, it’s time for two more (and probably the last two pieces my very generous editors will let me write about this show for quite some time):
A bonus Q&A with Natasha Lyonne. Even this is only a fraction of the stuff we talked about for the story — or, rather, only a fraction of what Lyonne said, since my interviews with her tend to involve me saying three words and then her delivering a 10-minute improvised monologue. But parts of some of those speeches had already been included in the making-of feature, and others did not come across remotely as clear on the page as they did while we spoke over Zoom. Regardless, she is a champion freaking talker, and it’s always fascinating to get a glimpse into how her mind works.
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Shrinking down to size
As you read this, the first two episodes of Shrinking are streaming on Apple TV+. Created by Jason Segel and Ted Lasso vets Bill Lawrence and Brett Goldstein, it’s a dramedy that’s a little bit Ted Lasso, a little bit Cougar Town (which Lawrence co-created with Kevin Biegel): a big, messy, empathetic show that in theory is about Segel’s therapist character engaging in erratic behavior following. the death of his wife, but very quickly becomes an excuse for a bunch of funny actors — among others, Segel, Jessica Williams, Christa Miller, and, most especially, Harrison Ford, in the kind of role he hasn’t played nearly enough in his career — to bounce off one another. I wrote about it more at length here, and I noted that the premiere (like a lot of Bill Lawrence premieres) isn’t great. And it’s not really until around the fourth episode — which features Harrison Ford singing along to a song you would never, ever, expect Harrison Ford to sing along to — that I felt completely in on the show. But by the end of the screener pile, I was laughing, I was crying, I was a mess, it was good. Will probably discuss this again later in the season.
The Last of Us, week two
My The Last of Us recaps continue with my take on the second episode, “Infected,” where Joel, Ellie, and Tess wander through the ruins of Boston in search of Fireflies. No spoilers here in the newsletter itself, but as I said last week, the comments section is going to be a spoiler-friendly zone for this as well as Poker Face, and any other episodes I end up writing about after they’ve aired. I found this one stronger than the premiere, if only because the more stripped-down structure gave us more insight into the characters, Ellie in particular. And it’s the characterization that ultimately separates this show from all the other zombie(*) post-apocalypse stories of the last ten-plus years.
(*) I’ve gotten some pushback on social media for referring to the mushroom people as zombies, rather than “clickers” or “infected,” or any of the other terms from the game. As with The Walking Dead, which came up with a half dozen different nicknames for the things without ever calling them zombies (at least not while I was still watching), I’m not going to indulge this. While the infected do not technically rise from the dead in the manner of a classic zombie, they in every other respect function exactly as zombies have in every horror story going back decades. Gripe all you want, but if it shuffles like a zombie and transforms its victims like a zombie…
P-p-p-Poker Face, p-p-p-part two!
Finally, we come to a plan somewhat complicated by very, very weird scheduling.
As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I intended to devote the end of each newsletter for the next couple of months to brief Poker Face episode recaps. Seemed the perfect streaming show to do this with, since the whole point is Johnson bringing back the classic Case of the Week format. And I will still do this going forward. However, what I was not expecting, until I sat down to write my review earlier this week, was to discover that Peacock had decided to drop FOUR Poker Face episodes on the first day.
Two? Two makes perfect sense. The premiere, “Dead Man’s Hand,” is very much a premise pilot, establishing who Charlie Cale is, how her human lie detector power works (and doesn’t work), and setting her up to go full Richard Kimble/David Banner/Jonathan Smith as she travels around the country helping people. So you’d want to start out by giving the audience at least one example of what the series actually is. Heck, I can even see the logic in debuting with three episodes, in part because I slightly preferred the Texas BBQ-set “The Stall” to the truck stop shenanigans of “The Night Shift,” and I can understand Peacock wanting to give viewers a bigger initial sample to fully draw them in.
Four, though? I have no idea why on Earth the execs at Peacock would want to burn nearly half of the first season in a single week, on a show that is specifically designed to be watched one week at a time. I mean, you can binge it — I watched the screeners in two blocks of three (one before I wrote the feature, the second before I wrote the review) as the episodes became available — in the same way you could binge Columbo or Murder, She Wrote or Quantum Leap today if you were really enjoying them. It just seems like such a waste of a show that is built to be savored as much as the meat and the wood and the smoke are in “The Stall.”
And on a more selfish level, I’m annoyed that I have to attempt to briefly cover four different episodes, rather than having the time to drill even a little bit more deeply into each one, the way I will starting next week. But in the meantime, here are some rapid-fire thoughts — with, of course, full spoilers — for each of the four:
“Dead Man’s Hand” is very much a premise pilot, and also easily the longest of the first six episodes. There’s a lot of exposition required about who Charlie is, how she ran afoul of Sterling Frost Jr’s dad (heard over the phone as the voice of Ron Perlman), etc., before we can get into the murder of Charlie’s friend Natalie, the way Charlie figures out how to get over on Sterling Jr, etc. But Adrien Brody and Benjamin Bratt are suitably menacing, and the episode’s second half has a lot of fun showing Sterling Jr. being very careful with how he phrases things, because he understands the way Charlie’s power works in a way few of the other killers on the series do. Bonus: that’s Terriers creator (and longtime Rian Johnson pal) Ted Griffin as the guy in the loud jacket in the casino lobby.
“The Night Shift” is, as I say in my review, one of the few episodes that left me a bit impatient to get to Charlie already. I quite like the material about the victim parlaying his job in the Subway Cinematic Universe (see also Chuck and Community) into social media fame, but the killer and his motivation are both pretty simplistic to other people we meet in the series. But once our favorite chatterbox enters the scene — and gets to spend time with newly-minuted Oscar nominee Hong Chau as the trucker with an endless supply of useful tools — things pick up very quickly. Nice to see John Ratzenberger in live-action form again, and I got a kick out of how the conversation by the trash can wound up having such important plot value in the end. Johnson is like Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale at their best together, where even the most seemingly inconsequential bit of dialogue winds up mattering much later on. Not every episode uses the running gag about Charlie’s struggle to pull very simple words off the tip of her tongue, but this one sure does, and is probably the funniest example of it from the ones I’ve seen, with Charlie’s word block leading to a truck stop singalong of Sweet’s “Fox on the Run.” I also appreciate that that episode, like some of the others, has Charlie skip town before justice can fully be done, because Cliff’s hot on her trail. The show may be structured like Columbo, but Charlie is a cop and can’t always stick around to watch the handcuffs be slapped on.
“The Stall” has Natasha Lyonne arguing with a temperamental, flatulent dog for one long stretch, and her tasting lots of pieces of wood for another. Oh, and in between, it has perhaps the first pop culture murder ever inspired by a viewing of Okja. So, yeah, it’s a fun one.
“Rest in Metal” once again pairs Lyonne and her BFF Chloë Sevigny, but it’s just got guest stars galore, including John Hodgman as the dweeb whom everyone mistakes for a narc, and John Darnielle from The Mountain Goats as the guitarist whose eBay store ruins everything for the big murder plot. It’s also the one of these four that most effectively uses the Knives Out/Glass Onion rewind gimmick, as seeing Charlie hanging out with the doomed drummer adds even more value to her desire to catch his killers than the glimpses of her friendship with Natalie do in “Dead Man’s Hand.” And the payoff to the drummer’s seemingly random Benson love is, like the trash can bit in “The Night Shift,” a great bit of sleight of hand. As the playwright Anton Chekhov once wrote, if you put a Robert Guillaume sitcom on the screen in act one…
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