It’s Surprisingly Nice To See Rian Johnson Play To Genre Expectations In Poker Face

Rian Johnson has built a reputation for subverting the tropes of the genres he's playing in, especially over the past six years. Really, it dates back to Brick, his 2005 feature debut that cast high school students as the hard-boiled denizens of a noir and has continued since his most recent film, Glass Onion. That's what makes Poker Face, Johnson's new case-of-the-week Peacock show, surprisingly refreshing.

In January 2020, Johnson outlined his approach to genre in conversation with Dune director Denis Villeneuve at a Director's Guild of America Q&A, following a screening of Knives Out.

"What I like about genre is it gives you a game board between you and the audience where you both know the rules of the game, and so they know when you're playing by those rules and they know when you're breaking them," Johnson said. "That creates a very interesting meta-conversation between you and the audience, 'cause there's the conversation with how I'm moving the pieces and then there's almost the under-the-table conversation of knowing when I'm doing things that don't quite make [sense]."

In 2017, Johnson's Star Wars: The Last Jedi released in theaters and went on to become the most persistently controversial movies in the history of the internet. While Johnson would say that he was working within the confines of the genre, he made a lot of decisions that contradicted the (pretty boring) expectations Star Wars fanboys have for how their sacred cows should be treated. He had Luke Skywalker turn his back on the Jedi way. He expanded the concept of the Force so that it could extend beyond the galaxy's famous families and to someone as seemingly unimportant as a random kid holding a broom. He decided that the hero came from nothing. And he killed off the trilogy's big bad with a movie to go. It was a good film, but one that certain Star Wars fans have loudly complained about ever since, and they may never stop.

Since then, Johnson has shifted his focus to the detective genre with Knives Out and Glass Onion, both of which he wrote and directed. Knives Out took a sideways entrance to the mystery genre, serving up a whodunnit where, from the opening, we believed that we knew exactly whodunnit, and were instead wondering how long it would take Daniel Craig's Benoit Blanc to crack the case.

Glass Onion also played around with the genre's structure, with a Back to the Future 2-style structure that doubled back on itself at the midpoint, recontextualizing everything that had come before. It was a fun movie to watch, less a fun mystery to solve. Despite having been a big fan of Johnson's work since Looper, I didn't love Glass Onion. It was the movie where it felt like the cleverness of his stories' construction started to get in the way of him actually unfolding a compelling mystery.

But in Poker Face, it feels like Johnson went back to the drawing board. In the detective series, Natasha Lyonne stars as a cocktail waitress named Charlie Cale, a human lie detector whose talent for calling bullshit gets her caught up in a murder mystery at the casino where she works. When things break bad, she's forced to run for it on a cross-country road trip, stumbling into cases as she goes.

Johnson directed the first two episodes, and wrote the pilot. In both, he plays it surprisingly straight, largely trading in subversion in favor of straight-down-the-middle storytelling and rock solid filmmaking. The pitch for the series seems to have been ‘Natasha Lyonne plays Columbo’ and Johnson and his collaborators stay pretty faithful to that premise. Though the series is loaded with Johnson's trademark of-the-moment social satire — TikTok, the "plandemic," and George Soros all get referenced in the first batch of episodes — the construction feels entirely classical.

If you've seen an episode of Columbo or Monk or Murder, She Wrote, Poker Face won't feel too far out of left field. Johnson shows that he can play skillfully within the confines of the game board without needing to subvert the rules much at all.

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