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The Poker Face Season Finale Delivers a Clever Ode to a Cynical '90s Hit

Rian Johnson’s self-aware Peacock series pairs perfectly with this Blues Traveler track.
  • Natasha Lyonne and Benjamin Bratt in the season finale of Poker Face (Photo: Peacock)
    Natasha Lyonne and Benjamin Bratt in the season finale of Poker Face (Photo: Peacock)

    The season finale of Poker Face has several memorable moments — including the revelation that crime-solving heroine Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne) has a sister played by Clea DuVall, and the introduction of a crime syndicate fronted by Rhea Perlman — but for viewers who remember the ’90s, it may be hard to top Cliff Legrand’s monologue in his car. After chasing her around all season, Cliff (Benjamin Bratt) finally has Charlie in his clutches. As he’s driving her back to face his boss, a casino thug she royally pissed off in the premiere, he’s stewing on how the universe has yoked him to the wise-ass woman in his passenger seat. To unburden himself, he delivers the entire bridge to the Blues Traveler song “Hook.”

    But he doesn’t sing it. Instead, he speaks it like a holy text. This is both passionate and ludicrous, which also describes Poker Face itself. And the scene works in part because the bridge from “Hook” is exactly the type of reference a series like this would make. Since its release in 1995, this particular portion of this particular song has become a go-to signifier for shows that want to communicate both their good taste and their wit. When it’s time to show the world you’re cool in a brainy sort of way, this is the jam to fire up.

    It’s a great choice. First and foremost, “Hook” is a catchy song, with an impassioned vocal from Blues Traveler frontman John Popper, a soaring chorus that practically demands shout-along participation, and some impressive harmonica work that gives the track a distinct personality. All this is also true for “Run-Around,” the other big Blues Traveler tune, but since that one was a top 10 hit about unrequited love, it’s been used on TV in more straightforward ways. It’ll play in the background of an episode, or it’ll be in a bank commercial to fire up nostalgia. “Hook,” however, signifies different things.

    Most obviously, it’s the rare hit whose lyrics demand close attention. Though it’s as slickly produced as any other major label release, the song is actually about the emptiness of being a pop star. Popper asserts he can sing any meaningless thing he wants, but if the hook is good, people will lap it up anyway. This meta-commentary helps the song tickle the brain as much as the ear, which means it can appeal to listeners who might normally reject Top 40 music as being too vapid.

    And then there’s the showmanship of that bridge. In what feels like a single, uninterrupted thought, Popper unleashes a tongue-twisting torrent of statements about his frustrated relationship to mainstream records. The rhymes are deft and the insights are sharp, but the pure sound of his performance is what really sticks. Like a rapper with a blues background, he shapes those syllables with yelps, growls, and power notes. He’s not merely talking fast: He’s telling a story at a rapid pace.

    No wonder the Poker Face brain trust wanted it. Every episode of Peacock’s mystery series has a similar, look-what-we-made-happen bravado. In the series finale, Cliff could’ve quoted any number of texts to make his point about being trapped in a futile pursuit, but by going with “Hook,” series creator Rian Johnson (who also writes the episode) adds an extra, knowing wink.

    Viewers may notice that Cliff bungles some of the lyrics, and anyone who has tried to sing “Hook” at karaoke knows this is a rite of passage. On TV, getting the words right (or not) is also part of the song’s legacy. In “Ally’s Toast,” a Season 1 episode of FXX’s Dave (now streaming on Hulu), lead character Lil Dicky (David Andrew Burd) tries to cut the tension during a car ride with his girlfriend by singing along to “Hook”’s bridge. He fails, spectacularly. By losing his battle with John Popper’s performance, Lil Dicky proves he’s not nearly as awesome as he thinks. Since his awkwardness is central to the show, it’s appropriate for him to be dominated by something as harmless as a radio single.

    On Selfie, however, Henry Higgs (John Cho) got every lyric correct. The uptight brainiac in ABC’s sitcom based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, he was defined by his inability to cut loose. But in the episode “Traumatic Party Stress Disorder,” he found bliss at a Blues Traveler show. When he sang along with the bridge of “Hook,” he embodied the concept of a clever person identifying with “smart” pop culture. Cho’s performance was so loose and joyous that he made “the Traveler Nation” seem like a path to nirvana.

    Yet nobody, possibly even John Popper, made the bridge of “Hook” seem cooler than Emma Stone. Back in 2014, during an appearance on The Tonight Show, she performed the song as part of a lip-sync battle with Jimmy Fallon, and she nailed it. Attacking each word with flashing-eyed ferocity, she suggested she really did want to burst all our balloons and burn all of our cities to the ground. While Fallon went for goofy choices (Styx’s “Mr. Roboto” and Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”), Stone flexed both her mile-a-minute lip-syncing dexterity and her well-curated playlist sensibility.

    This entire history is packed into Cliff’s monologue on Poker Face. The show’s first season is thick with similar references to art and pop culture, though it’s too sophisticated to make a big deal about it. Instead, the allusions are scattered like hidden diamonds, sparkling only for the people who notice them. That’s why neither Cliff nor Charlie mention where his speech comes from: Johnson’s script lets it work as an expression of the character’s spiritual frustration, then trusts music fans to get the rest. That sly playfulness helps the series stand out, just like it’s helped “Hook” stay relevant for almost 30 years.

    Poker Face Season 1 is now streaming on Peacock. Join the discussion about the show in our forums

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: Poker Face, Peacock, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Benjamin Bratt, Dave "Lil Dicky" Burd, Emma Stone, Jimmy Fallon, John Cho, Natasha Lyonne, Rian Johnson, Blues Traveler