Charlie Cale likes people. As we’ve previously observed, she’s at ease talking to people (and animals) from all walks of life, and this gives her an advantage as a detective. That humanistic approach also makes an episode of Poker Face go down easier than your various Laws & Order and Criminal Intents. The time we get to spend with the killer may not always make them sympathetic, but it inevitably makes their schemes, their failings, even their murderous impulses, far more relatable than someone who’s just this week’s face on the witness stand.
Nowhere is that more apparent than “The Future of the Sport,” in which we get plenty of time getting to know two feuding drag racers. Keith Owens (the always-excellent Tim Blake Nelson) is the third generation of a racing dynasty whose career is sputtering to a close, while Davis McDowell (Riverdale’s Charles Melton) is the hot-tempered challenger looking to knock him off of his perch. For anyone who’s been or spent time with a toddler in the last fifteen years, Davis is Lightning McQueen, Keith is The King, and they’re both Chick Hicks.
There’s no love lost between the racers, and Davis knocking Keith off the track leads to a fistfight, which leads to more anger, which leads to a murder attempt made to look like an accident on the track. This is the first episode without an actual murder; it likes the characters enough that the victim, while comatose through most of the episode, pulls through in the end. None of that makes this feel like a lesser episode, however. The stakes don’t need to be high for this kind of show to work, they just need to be personal.
And those personal stakes matter, because we get to know the racers as people. Both of them seem like heels, and they both are, but we also spend enough time with them to see their point of view. Davis resents that Keith’s a nepo baby who’s got sponsors behind him and an expensive car, while he’s stuck working as a tow truck driver to pay the bills, and his own ride looks older and more beaten up than Charlie’s Barracuda. Keith is well aware that his best days are behind him and maybe weren’t good enough to live up to his father and grandfather’s legacy. He also has a daughter, Katy (Jasmine Aiyana Garvin), who’s eager to carry on the family business, and he’s holding her back, less out of concern over the dangers of the sport, and more because he’s worried she’ll overshadow him on the track. She and Davis are the future referred to in the title, and he’s the past.
One of the two racers ends up as the subject of Charlie’s investigation, but neither of them are completely innocent, and neither are completely unsympathetic—to the audience, or to Charlie, who lets Davis give her racing tips and flirt with her (up to a point). She also appreciates Katy’s passion and skill on the track, even if it’s just a go-kart track, the only place where Keith will let her compete. Charlie’s also conveniently friends and co-workers with Davis’ mom, Jean (Angel Desai), who both encourages her son and tries to keep his worst impulses in check.
While the episode does an admirable job of breaking down the clear-cut heroes-and-villains formula of most murder mysteries, it still falls back on a little bit of formula. Charlie confides in the very person she should suspect most, as usual; she overhears an innocuous-seeming lie that starts her pulling at threads; and she can’t go directly to the police, but still finds a way to give the guilty party their just desserts.
• As has been noticed here and elsewhere, Poker Face is modeled very closely on Columbo, down to the title font. But while that show’s rumpled detective usually outsmarted the rich and powerful, even Poker Face’s outwardly wealthy or successful characters feel down-at-heel. Adrian Brody’s failson casino owner from episode one knows he can’t live up to his father’s expectations; Tim Meadows’ retired actor is famous and married rich, but knows he’s a has-been who’s famous for doing TV dreck. Poker Face’s killers are strivers, and mostly failed strivers. That doesn’t give you Columbo’s satisfaction in watching the high and mighty brought low, but it makes for richer characters populating the show every week.