Once time, most television was like that An expressionless facea new peacock drama is created Glass onionStarring Rian Johnson Russian dollIt’s Natasha Lyonne. It is purely an episodic, events of the week show. Each episode creates its own special story that Lyons’ Charlie Cale finds a way to complete by the end of the hour. There are extremely loose threads, but you could theoretically watch every episode but the first in any order and get the same enjoyment out of each one. This is a show that relies heavily on the appeal of its star and the ability of Johnson and the other writers and directors to make each individual story so interesting that you’ll want to come back for more without any real clues. To be continued.
This is how television has worked for decades. Then it came The Wire:, Breaking Bad, Game of Thronesand so on, and suddenly the event of the week passed. simplistic things from a time when we knew television could be better. Serialization was the new king, and if each episode didn’t somehow contribute to the larger story, what was the point?
In many ways, television has benefited greatly from this shift. The best shows of this century have managed to aim higher, dig deeper, and make incredible use of vast amounts of time, telling one story about one character for years. But in other ways we really have lost something. Serialization has become as formulaic as purely episodic storytelling used to be. Too many presenters, be they screenwriters trying to stretch a movie they couldn’t sell, or just those who learned the wrong lesson from watching. The sopranosor thought it would be easy to just copy Breaking Badthe structure of mistakenly assuming that an ongoing story is fundamentally interesting just because it runs for an entire season or an entire series. Complexity is seen as rewarding for its own sake, not because it adds any value to the story being told. So we get these long, amorphous slimes; “It’s a 10-hour movie.” – they forget how to have fun because they only care about progress.
Thank goodness, then, for Johnson, Lyons, and everyone else involved in the making An expressionless face. It deploys all the best elements of yesteryear, but in a way that makes the show thoroughly modern, all the same Knives out! and: Glass onion are inspired by Agatha Christie mysteries without feeling like dusty period pieces.
We learn that Charlie was once an unbeatable poker player thanks to an unusual, essentially superhuman ability; he can always tell when someone is lying. Eventually, she ran into the wrong people and now works as a cocktail waitress in a Nevada casino trying to stay out of trouble. But as with these kinds of shows, trouble inevitably keeps finding him, always in the form of a murder that only he can solve because he knows the killer is full of it.
The format is a mix of classic Columbus open mystery and the approach Johnson took with Benoit Blanc’s films. Each episode opens for 10-15 minutes without Charlie as we meet the killers and their victims and see how and why the killing happened. The stories then come back to show how Charlie already knows these characters before we finally get to what happened, as well as a way for the bad guys to see justice, even though Charlie isn’t a cop and actually has to stay out of the law. as the events of the first episode make him a fugitive forced to travel anonymously from city to city. (The only continuing element is that a casino bouncer, played by Benjamin Bratt, chases her around the country because of the events of the pilot, but even that is relatively minor and rare in episodes given to critics.)
The settings and types of guest stars vary greatly from episode to episode. In one, he has a job at a Texas barbecue run by Lil Rel Hower. In another, he’s a roadie for a one-hit wonder heavy metal band with Chloé Sevigny as an aging frontman desperate for a comeback.
Although there was already Peter Falk’s affiliate Columbo in Lyon Russian doll performance, Charlie is a very different character, friendly and curious about the people and the world around him. It’s a completely magnetic and triumphant performance where he’s just as good on his own, like tasting different kinds of wood to uncover one of Lil Rel’s lies, as he hangs out with great guest stars like Hong Chow (as an anti-social long-haul truck) or Ellen Barkin (as an eighties TV star now performing in dinner theatre).
And like Blanc’s films, this is a show that uses all parts of Buffalo. As disposable a scene as, say, Charlie having a fun encounter with a stranger at the dumpster, it will ultimately have some significance to the plot. The whole thing is pretty damn clever, including the many ways it manages to show the limits of being a human lie detector, and the light on the feet.
That said, because it shows how An expressionless face have become so rare, or, at least, the like, which also occur on this well, there is danger of praising it too wildly. Like any episodic drama, some episodes are stronger than others, especially in the Lyon-free opening sequences. Episode five, for example, features Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson as former seventies revolutionaries who are now two of the toughest, meanest people in their retirement community; The combination of that premise and these great veteran actors is so strong that I almost forgot I was waiting for Charlie. But the second episode, which involves a trio of people working the night shift at a convenience store next to a truck stop, only really takes off when that familiar mop of strawberry blonde hair shows up. And even when he does appear, the flashbacks can sometimes leave you impatient to get to the part where Charlie starts to poke holes in the killer’s story. (Columbus Episodes were between 70 and 100 minutes long, allowing plenty of time between Falk and the guest stars. After the 67-minute debut episode, which is supposed to establish Charlie’s story and premise, all the others are an hour or less, sometimes considerably less.)
But goddamn, what a relief and joy to see a TV show that actually wants to be a TV show, and that knows how to do it at this high level. Johnson and Lyons have said they would like to keep the show going as long as possible. Here’s hoping they get the chance. This is wonderful.
The first four episodes An expressionless face begin airing on January 26 on Peacock, with additional episodes released weekly. I’ve seen the first six of the 10 episodes.