Poker Face S1E6: Exit Stage Death

There’s nothing actors love more than making fun of actors, and Ellen Barkin and Tim Meadows are clearly having a blast in this week’s episode. Playing washed-up thespians best known for a cheesy series called Spooky and the Cop, their fortunes have wildly diverged, as Meadows’ Michael Gravis is married to the impossibly beautiful and charming (and wealthy) Ava (Jameela Jamil) and enjoying a cushy retirement, while Barkin’s Kathleen Townsend is desperately trying to generate interest in her dinner theater production of “Ghosts of Pensacola.”

Kathleen strongarms Michael into joining her onstage one last time, and with some encouragement from Ava he agrees, although the two actors clearly can’t stand each other. Their mutual loathing intensifies during rehearsals, as Kathleen is an insufferable diva as an actress and an overbearing dictator as a director. The episode does a terrific job of laying the groundwork for the murder — Michael’s heart pills, a trapdoor in the stage, the fact that anyone who’s spent ten minutes with Kathleen would want to murder her. And yet the pieces expertly come together in a way that’s shockingly unexpected.

The episode is on shakier ground in the aftermath, as the killer tries to cover their tracks by insisting on an encore performance the following night. That anyone would agree to put on a performance the day after a seemingly-accidental death took place on stage beggars belief, but it’s all just an excuse for Charlie Cale (naturally, working as a waitress at the dinner theater and making a hash of her low-wage job as usual) to poke around backstage during the run-up to the performance and even during. She stays just barely offstage, pestering the actors while they’re trying to slog through an amusingly histrionic off-brand Tennessee Williams melodrama.

She cracks the case, of course, as her innate lie detector can even tell her whether an actor is saying their lines with conviction or just putting on a show. But we don’t actually get too much Charlie in this episode. Watching Barkin and Meadows chew the scenery while driving each other up the wall is a lot of fun, and the setup to the murder is exceedingly clever, but those two things take up a lot of the episode before we get to the sleuthing. And even then, someone else solves the murder well before Charlie does, adding a blackmail plot to the murder plot and the backstage shenanigans. The episode does what actors refer to as “putting a hat on a hat.” Lucky for us, they’re both very nice hats.

Stray Bullets:
• Meadows was a terrific, versatile role player on Saturday Night Live and while he’s been working steadily since, he deserved a better post-SNL career than the one he got. So it’s nice to see him stretch out here in a role that’s largely dramatic.

• Audrey Corsa is a less familiar face than Barkin or Meadows, but she’s also great here as a younger actress who the other two both look down on as an entitled Millennial. 

• In the catch-up-with-what-Charlie’s-been-up-to section of the episode, we see her get fired from a different waitressing job before getting hired at the dinner theater. It’s a nice acknowledgement that she has a life in the time between episodes, and there isn’t a murder literally every place she goes.

• While we could have used more Charlie this week, it’s nice to see that the show isn’t a slave to formula. Poker Face is much more of a showcase for the guest stars of the week than Columbo or various Laws & Order, and it’s hard to fault the show for that when the guest stars have been reliably terrific.

Subject is gradually expanding its TV coverage, so look for reviews of the final season of Star Trek: Picard, starting later this week.