Poker Face S1E4: Rest in Metal

This one was kinda silly. And yet, it does an admirable job of tackling something very difficult to do on television: inventing a band that sounds and acts like a real band. Doxxxology are a one-hit wonder metal band a few decades past their prime, and none of them can stand their hit, but audiences demand they keep playing it. Singer Ruby Ruin (Chloë Sevingy) works at Home Depot in between tours, which consist of midde-aged has beens grousing in a van, in between shows for disinterested bar patrons who only perk up when they hear “Staplehead,” the band’s one hit. They’re like a thousand other bands whose brief moment has passed, but whose members aren’t quite ready to let go of the dream.

And in the most impressive feat of realism, Doxxxology sounds exactly like they should. “Staplehead” sounds like it could have been a minor hit in the ’90s. Their other songs sound okay but also explain why the band never had a second hit. Credit John Darnielle from The Mountain Goats (who also plays Al, the band’s guitarist, and comports himself well in his first-ever acting gig) and Jamey Jasta from Hatebreed, who co-wrote the band’s repertoire.

And, like so many struggling bands, they can’t keep a steady drummer. Enter Gavin, the over-enthusiastic and under-showered newest band member, who was still in diapers back when “Staplehead” was a hit. He plays well, he’s ready to tour on short notice, he loves the band… and he’s incredibly annoying. He leaves food wrappers everywhere. He goes barefoot in the car. And he has boundless, puppyish enthusiasm for a band whose other members see Doxxxology, and “Staplehead” in particular, as a millstone around their necks.

Gavin also gets hit hard with the downside of touring with a band he grew up loving. After the first gig, he shows up with a bottle of whiskey, ready to party, only to find his middle-aged bandmates’ lifestyles have slowed down. Sobriety, acid reflux, “I have to be up early.” And when Gavin presents a new song to the band he’s convinced will be the hit they’ve been looking for, he’s crushed by their negative reaction. Their original drummer wrote “Staplehead,” so they’re stuck playing it over and over while she cashes the royalty checks. None of them are eager to repeat that scenario.

So instead of breaking up over creative differences, the band’s internal tensions lead to murder. And only after the longest intro the show’s given us so far do we get to the reveal that the band’s roadie on this tour has been… Charlie Cale. Touring the country with a band no one’s paying attention to is an ideal setup for our sleuth on the run, and this is the first episode where the murder—an onstage electrocution made to look like an accident — happens right in front of her. 

That’s a good enough setup, except when we backtrack to see what Charlie’s up to before the murder, we’re just seeing the same scenes of the band with her now in the frame. It’s a clever idea, but it’s tedious in practice, as we re-run too many scenes.

We still get some terrific moments, like a few good live performances out of Doxxology, and a few wryly amusing moments, like the band recording a song in a WeWork-type shared office, as a frustrated podcaster waits outside for her turn to record Murder Girl. (“I solve murders,” she tells Charlie, who’s distinctly unimpressed.)

But the band’s rise and fall is a bit ridiculous, both in how writing one good song quickly lands them the “Standard Rich and Famous Contract” from the end of The Muppet Movie, and how the song’s music and lyrics both come from sillier sources than anyone would have guessed. So while there are a few beats that don’t really land, the episode overall is still very worthwhile. As a great metal band once observed, there’s a fine line between clever and stupid.

Stray Bullets:
• Chloë Sevigny and Natasha Lyonne are longtime friends in real life, so it’s fun to watch them get on each other’s nerves here.

• We’ve had plenty of big-name guest stars, but we get our first bit of stunt casting here, as Night Call co-host Emily Yoshida plays the true crime podcaster. Episodic Medium’s Josh Spiegel caught an even more subtle Easter Egg, as Murder Girl is seen at the top of a true crime podcast ranking, just above You Must Remember This, hosted by Karina Longworth, who’s married to series creator Rian Johnson.

• Darnielle also contributes a slightly-too-confessional song titled, “You Can’t Un-Murder Someone,” and “Merch Girl,” which is Ruby’s passive-aggressive swipe at Charlie.

• While Charlie’s bullshit detector always factors into her solving these mysteries, her best skill might be how patient and empathetic she is with people everyone else discounts, from this week’s annoying drummer, to last week’s conspiracy-theory-loving dog, to the previous episode’s maladjusted stalker. And to the show’s credit, it’s always set up as Charlie’s innate kindness leading her to clues other people might have overlooked, and not her dogged detective work using people for information, which is usually how these things go.

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