same but different: a weekend watch-it write-up (Poker Face)

In the writing business, we all know the saying “same but different,” meaning taking a solid idea and rebuilding it with a twist. It’s what storytellers do! It’s our bread and butter or sourdough toast and almond spread! Over the weekend, I watched a new series that encapsulates this idea perfectly. Like all good binge-worthy weekend watches, it began with a crime.

A housekeeper at a Las Vegas-styled casino stumbles across something horrific and takes a picture. Wanting to do the right thing, she shows her boss, who is kind and understanding but–

This is the first few minutes of Rian Johnson’s (Knives Out) new series Poker Face (Jan. 26, 2023, Peacock). A well-made, well-plotted show with the twist of well-known actors taking center stage throughout the season.

In keeping with Johnson’s brand of a whodunit mystery turned inside out, this quirky howcatchem starts with a crime, unmasks the villain immediately, and then introduces the detective. In this case, a casino worker, Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne, Russian Dolls), solves a murder with her talent of reading people who lie.

Unfortunately, Cale’s human lie detector-ness puts her in danger, and she must go on the run from powerful people bent on revenge. Cale jumps in her 1970s muscle car, travels a stretch of lonely highway searching for solace, and solves crimes along the way.

It reminds me of another mystery-of-the-week TV series from the 1970s that also uses characters with special powers and a muscle vehicle of sorts (No, not Knight Rider!) The Incredible Hulk (1977-1982).

Both Poker Face and The Incredible Hulk are about a regular person with an unusual ability they can’t control, on the run from dangerous villains, who stumble upon needy people, help them, then skip town, just to do it all over again.

Even their names are an alliteration ala Marvel Comics style-Charlie Cale and Bruce Banner! Although, in The Incredible Hulk TV series, the mild-mannered doctor plagued with the worst case of a temper tantrum is Dr. David Banner (Bill Bixby). However, we die-hard Avenger enthusiasts know he is, in fact, Bruce Banner (double B).

I like the irony of each protagonist that comes into play too. For Dr. Banner, he switches from brainiac scientist to radiation-reactive brawn. For down-to-earth Charlie Cale, it’s her ability to make connections, no matter the red herring, but only if she’s calm-er. Under intense stress, she can barely name objects!

For example, in the second episode, Cale sits in a diner surrounded by helpful truckers trying to decipher her stick-figure drawing of an animal and connect it to the logo of a trucking company because she can’t remember the word fox.

Although the idea of been-there-done-that is often understood as not original, there is something great about seeing a show that seems familiar because suddenly, it’s interactive! We, the audience, become detectives, collecting clues, counting those Easter eggs, listing the similarities, and naming the new-fangled twists. Plus, it’s comforting, nostalgic, and fun, and Poker Face is no different!

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