Poker Face S1E5: Time of the Monkey

In her 390 episodes of Law & Order, S. Epatha Merkerson never once got to say “We gotta kill that motherfucker,” which we now see was to that show’s lasting detriment. She’s a foul-mouthed delight, as is Special Victims Unit alum Judith Light, as the two of them play Joyce and Irene, a pair of hilariously spiteful pot-smoking nursing home residents. It’s fun watching them chafe against the uptight biddies and rule-bound staff they’re surrounded with, but even more so just watching them as two old friends hanging out and shooting the shit with their new friend.

Which, of course, is Charlie Cale. (And I like that the show doesn’t waste a lot of time explaining how she came to work in a nursing home after stints as a roadie and an incompetent BBQ cook—she’s going to have a different menial, low-profile job each week, the details aren’t that important.) And while a few episodes have taken too long setting things up before Charlie starts investigating, this one’s better for taking its time. We (and Charlie) get to spend more time getting to know Joyce and Irene, hearing stories about their time as hippie radicals, and generally having fun before murder even enters the conversation.

This works as well as it does because Merkerson and Light create such warm, likable characters in such a short time, but it also helps by tweaking the show’s formula a bit. We talked last week about how one of Charlie’s strengths as a detective is that she’s naturally inclined to talk to people everyone else might overlook. But this time, it feels like Charlie’s found her people. She genuinely becomes friends with the two older women, to the point where a co-worker has to reprimand her, shouting “you don’t live here!” when she’s spending all her time playing mahjong and shuffleboard with her new pals. They only sour at a trip to the zoo, where the pair have better things to do than see a chimp (the monkey of the title) who can tell time, which the other nursing home residents are amusingly impressed by.

But of course, it can’t all be fun and games. A man from Joyce and Irene’s past checks into the home, and Charlie immediately sniffs out that his “nephew” is in fact an FBI agent, and his “uncle” is not what he seems. Then someone turns up dead, and we’re off to the races. And while the murder and its solution are clever, the crux of the episode is watching Charlie’s assumptions (and loyalties) be slowly tested as she keeps digging.

As usual, Charlie never entirely thinks through her confrontation with the killers, so we get an absurdly over-the-top fight scene with Spaceballs-quality stunt doubles. (Not that anyone expects 70-somethings to do their own stunts, but the show’s definitely been better at action in the past). It all gets a bit ridiculous, but not enough to spoil what was the best episode since the pilot.

Stray Bullets:
• Odd coincidence; Judith Light’s first TV role was a Kojak episode called “Monkey on a String.” (She’s also well-known from One Life to Live, Who’s the Boss, and Jane the Virgin)

• Scatterbrained Charlie is still the best version of Charlie, especially here when she refers to Model UN as “some kinda United Nations for babies.”
• While we’ve established in previous episodes that Charlie can’t call the cops because Sterling Frost has framed her for murder, maybe multiple murders, she actually gets to work with the proper authorities this time. Fake Nephew gives him her card, and we surely haven’t seen the last of him. I wonder whether the show’s long-term plan is to make Charlie legitimate at some point. If this is a two or three-season show that ends with her confronting Frost and getting him off her back one way or another, it doesn’t matter. If the show’s going to hang around any longer than that, Charlie stumbling on a murder by accident every week while also surviving hand-to-mouth and evading Frost’s goons starts to strain credulity. But I would watch the hell out of Charlie trying to fit in with a straightlaced FBI unit.