Poker Face S1E3: The Stall

“I’m a murderer.” 

Usually we don’t get a confession until the end of the episode, but these are the opening words of “The Stall,” which sees Charlie Cale keeping a low profile while working at a Texas barbecue joint. The confession belongs to the head chef, George, who has an abrupt crisis of conscience and decides to quit the animal-grilling business and go vegan. His brother Taffy runs the business side of the restaurant and is less than thrilled that his meal ticket is asking to be excused from the table.

In most families, this kind of dispute would lead to a few awkward Thanksgivings, but this being Poker Face, the disagreement escalates to murder. Everyone thinks it’s a suicide… except one person, of course.

As always, we get the setup and the kill, and then double back on Charlie. She’s working at the BBQ joint, and has inherited an ill-tempered terrier, who jumps in her car and refuses to leave, and then won’t stop barking unless she turns on a conspiracy-minded right-wing talk radio host. She can’t stand the dog, but when it turns up at the side of the road, apparently dead of blunt force trauma, she can’t let it go and starts an investigation. (Spoiler: it’s TV, the dog’s fine in the end.)

The fun of a Columbo-style show is in seeing how the sleuth puts everything together, and “The Stall” is a particularly good example. Although Charlie identifies the killer early on, it’s really not clear how she’s going to turn the tables on them with no evidence. And while this is the one episode of the first four where casino security chief Cliff LeGrand doesn’t make an appearance, it’s Texas; everyone’s armed and a potential threat, so Charlie has to make her accusations lightly.

There are a lot of terrific small touches in this one. George schools Charlie on different types of wood and how they add different flavors to barbecue. When she finds splinters at the scene of the crime, she taste tests different varieties to find a match. That leads to some hilarious baffled reactions from the people around her, but as she samples each type of wood, each has a musical motif — a very clever way to denote different tastes. George describes his brother’s post-BBQ cinnamon dental floss as “an air horn at a symphony,” so when Charlie smells it, she hears an air horn. Things like taste and smell are nearly impossible to convey on film, and episode director Iain B. McDonald (Episodes, Shameless) finds a very clever way of doing so.

Although, like Charlie, I do have one nagging thought at the back of my mind I can’t let go of. The first episode’s motivation was clear—powerful people chasing large sums of money. The second’s was equally clear—an impulsive bad decision by someone who didn’t seem like they made a lot of good ones. This week’s is a little murkier. The murder was very thoroughly planned and premeditated, but it came seemingly a few hours after the inciting incident. Had the killer been waiting for their moment to carry out their plan, and a fight over veganism was the excuse they had been looking for? The episode doesn’t really elaborate.

But any show where our hero stumbles onto murder after murder just by happenstance requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief from the audience. And we’re happy to suspend disbelief for an episode that’s this much fun.

• Peacock released four episodes together, and then the remaining six once a week. We’ll continue to do two reviews a week until we’re caught up.

• This episode is lighter on the big-name actors, as Lil’ Rel Howery plays Taffy, and behind him on the call sheet is Australian actress Danielle McDonald (Patti Cake$, Bird Box), and no other big names, although Larry Brown, who plays George, and Shane Paul McGhie, who plays the talk radio DJ, are terrific.

• There are so many great low-key setups and punchlines in this one, including the identity of the hateful talk radio DJ, the person who convinces Geoge to go vegan, and the home Charlie eventually finds for the dog.