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Poker Face - Escape From Shit Mountain + The Hook - Review

10 Mar 2023

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As much as it didn’t always seem that way, nothing is clearer after the season 1 finale of Poker Face than the fact that the show has always known what it wanted to be. Whether what it wants to be is what it should be is up to interpretation, and another matter entirely. Read on for my review of “Escape From Shit Mountain” and “The Hook”:

Starting with “Escape From Shit Mountain,” we find Charlie stranded in the Rocky Mountains for the winter after a prolonged tryst turns sour and leaves her without money or gas. A friendly, kleptomanic stranger who Charlie only knows by the pseudonym Mortimer (Stephanie Hsu) agrees to help Charlie out in exchange for a rise off the mountain, but things slowly go awry when Charlie’s car gets stuck and an intense blizzard blocks off all the roads. A series of unfortunate events (including but not limited to Charlie being gravely injured by a car and dumped into a hole in the middle of the woods) eventually leads the pair to a cabin-style motel in the mountain, but unbeknownst to them, their hosts (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and David CastaƱeda) may be the ones responsible for Charlie’s near-death - as well as the disappearance of a popular snowboarder on the same mountain 10 years earlier.

This episode was insane. Basically a full movie in itself, “Mountain” was full of twists, turns, intrigue and energy. By far the best hour of the season, and certainly a competitor for best television episode of the year, the episode juggled suspense and wit, humor and horror with ease. With Charlie’s life in the balance for most of the episode, obviously the stakes feel higher than usual, and the hour continually pays off all that high tension with every desperate, heart-pounding second. In spite of the revelation that the events of the episode allowed Charlie to accidentally fake her own death, the final twist of the hour is that Cliff had found her anyway, and was ready to strike at Frost's command.

And then, quite literally, nothing happens.

In “The Hook,” we get to see what Cliff had been doing for the full year(!) he had been chasing Charlie on Frost’s behalf. Spoiler: it was a lot of nights in crappy hotels. His resentment for his boss growing, when Frost decides to have Cliff not kill Charlie, but instead bring her to him so he can give her a job, Cliff finally snaps. With the help of rival casino owner Beatrix Hasp (Rhea Perlman, VO only), he plans to off his boss for good and frame Charlie for the crime instead. This leads to a large-scale manhunt for Charlie as she tries to escape from the law, and runs into someone from her past along the way (a sure-to-be-reprised cameo from Clea Duvall).

The whole point of “The Hook” is to subvert expectations. After an intense, thrilling episode like “Mountain,” we expect a major finale, but instead the mystery and its resolution are rather low-key. We think because Cliff has found Charlie, he’ll strike, or that since he follows Frost’s orders so faithfully, he likes the man. It’s not a subtle point, either - Frost himself basically says it, taunting Charlie when she chooses to stay and hear him out just to find out why he didn’t have her killed immediately. The subversion itself worked, but the episode still felt a bit underwhelming, and brushing it off by saying “it wasn’t supposed to be exciting” feels like a bit of a cop-out.

However, more important than that is that “The Hook” told us, in the simplest language possible, exactly what Poker Face is trying to be, and will continue to be in its recently announced second season. I’ve touched on it a few times already, but this show isn’t looking to break the mold or do anything too new. Instead, it’s looking to fit exactly the mold, meet exactly to people’s expectations - the hope is just that it’s done well.

I think that this is actually a manifestation of a fascinating recent trend in media; the idea that people don’t necessarily want things to be “original” anymore. Movies like Top Gun: Maverick garnered heaps of praise last year not for their ability to give us anything new or unexpected, but for their ability to hit on every plot point we wanted; to very precisely execute every trope in the book. This kind of approach - using convention not as a list of things to avoid but as a recipe for what to include - naturally won’t hit well for everyone. But I can’t say it’s 100% a bad thing. After all, Maverick was a pretty decent movie, and in spite of its occasional cosmetic flaws I thoroughly enjoyed Poker Face. What this finale, this show, and this trend overall are doing is betting that people want familiarity now more than ever, and they’re willing to sacrifice their attachment to a property’s uniqueness to get some of it. It’s a jarring change for certain, but it’s not like it’s not a working strategy.

Back on the sole topic of Poker Face, though; one thing about it that is not ordinary about this show is that it has Natasha Lyonne. Lyonne is probably one of only a few working actors today who could really, truly sell the “modern-day Colombo” character like this show needed her to. She elevates every scene, creates audience interest where plot doesn’t provide it, makes it easy to love Charlie, to root for her, even in the quiet moments. If this show was going to go for a formulaic model, it needed Lyonne as its star, and I will not pretend like this show would be half as good as it is without her. Most certainly, she’ll be ignored come awards season, but between this and her criminally overlooked performance in Russian Doll we need to get her another Emmy. Consider me the head of the campaign, and that campaign starts right now.

I still have some reservations about Poker Face. At times, it can be uneven, unengaging, and, in spite of itself, simply too formulaic to care about. The fact that the Hasp plotline ensures that the second season will have essentially the same overarching plot as the first is worrisome. It touts its guest stars, and then often under-utilizes their talents. Am I hoping I see a few more “Escape From Shit Mountain” episodes in season 2 than “The Hook”-type ones? Absolutely. But God, even after all that, is this show fun. And it rings with a nostalgia for the procedurals of years past; reminds me of the classic mystery shows I would watch as an elementary schooler. It’s formulaic, yes, but it wants to be, and sometimes that’s annoying, but mostly it’s just…good.

It’s just really good.