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Poker Face - Time of the Monkey + Exit Stage Death - Review

24 Feb 2023

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In its 5th and 6th episodes, Poker Face delivers some clever plotlines, but still struggles somewhat to make its central mysteries interesting. Read on for my review of “Time of the Monkey” and “Exit Stage Death”:

In “Time of the Monkey,” Charlie takes a job at a retirement home, where she quickly befriends two very hip residents of the home, Joyce (S. Epatha Merkerson) and Irene (Judith Light). Charlie is fascinated by the women’s stories of organized civil disobedience in the 60’s, and their unending admiration for their group’s former cult leader, Gabriel, who had supposedly died in the same police raid on their organization that put Irene permanently into a wheelchair. However, when Charlie puts together that a fellow resident of the facility who had just passed away under mysterious circumstances was Gabriel, who hadn’t died in the raid but had been placed into witness protection, her suspicions reluctantly turn toward her new friends.

In “Exit Stage Death,” Charlie gets a job as a waiter at a low-brow dinner theater just around the same time that Kathleen Townsend (Ellen Barkin) and Michael Graves (Tim Meadows), two former TV co-stars famous for their rumored feud, reunite to act against one another again in a dramatic, “Our Town”-esque play. The pair fight all the way through rehearsals, their ego clash coming to a head on opening night, where both sabotage the set in order to do away with the other for good - but after both actors’ traps fail to kill the other, Michael’s young, rich wife (Jameela Jamil) ends up being the real victim after falling into the trap meant for Kathleen. It looked, at first glance, like a horrible accident - but was it?

Both of these episodes were very enjoyable, with each featuring decently complex mysteries. One thing that both episodes struggled with, however, is a reason to care about the players in the mystery at all - it’s not always as engaging when the people being murdered are just as unsympathetic as the murderers, as was the case in both episodes. Arguably, we’re still early enough in this narrative that we really have to be attached to the idea that “justice must be done” in each episode in order to believe that these mysteries are worth our time. However, Poker Face is already itching to pursue out-of-left-field twists and “there are no good guys” scenarios - ironically making the conclusions of both episodes seem somewhat underwhelming.

As smart and engaging each episode is on a base level, there are still flaws with the format that still haven't been quite worked out. For a murder mystery TV show that very much seems to want to follow conventions pioneered by previous shows, it doesn’t seem as comfortable breaking out of the mold and finding its own unique avenue of humor and storytelling as similar comedy-mysteries like Psych and Monk were. I still feel that Poker Face has the potential to be known as one of the greats, especially since it’s coming out in a time that is painfully bereft of good procedurals. But instead, the show seems to be content with just being a “good” show backed by a myriad of exciting names - which, to be fair, still often gets Emmys, so I can't yet say that the strategy is necessarily ineffective.

On a related note, this show continues to be very reminiscent of Monk and shows like it. It not only follows the same “howtocatchem” episode formula as both Monk and Columbo before it, but it also shares the same dry slapstick as the Tony Shaloub-starrer. Both detective shows seem to be obvious inspirations for Poker Face, but its sometimes close imitation of them is a double-edged sword, as it sometimes still lacks the charm and the cleverness of both and invites comparisons. The episodes are getting a bit twistier but are still fairly easy to see through - I’m still waiting for an episode unfolding that wasn’t clearly played-out from the start.

There are a few more things that I wouldn’t consider full criticisms but that did poke at my mind as I watched the episodes - for one, I was a bit concerned about the lack of updates on the whole Cliff situation. The ending of episode 4 was such an exhilarating and unexpected twist when he showed up, and then the whole thing kind of just…died away. Sure, Charlie got away, but after that, not even a mention of her close call, not a single cutaway to what Cliff was doing? And another not-quite-criticism (more of a thought exercise): how do we think Charlie is getting some of these jobs? I understand that most of them are pretty under-the-table - like the waiting job in “Exit Stage Death” - but you’re telling me a retirement home is hiring people without doing background checks or submitting W2s or getting bank account numbers or doing anything that might tip off Cliff as to Charlie’s location?

Finally, it does feel like Poker Face is still criminally underutilizing its biggest-touted guest stars, to the point where I’m scared for the upcoming Stephanie Hsu episode - seeing that she was guesting was a legitimate selling point of the show for me, but now I wonder how much she’ll actually be in it. The ads have been somewhat deceiving, as well as just confusing - for instance, most of the advertisements I saw emphasized Jameela Jamil’s guest role, which lasted for all of about 2 scenes, but didn't highlight Tim Meadows’, who I would think would be a more familiar face and a bigger name, especially to the Peacock subscriber crowd. I’m not going so far as to cry “false advertising,” but I’m finding most of the guest spots that the trailers promoted to be more underwhelming than anything else, especially for being such a huge part of the show's marketing strategy.

Overall, however, these episodes were pretty enjoyable. We're starting to be able to better figure out what a “standard” Poker Face episode is supposed to look like, and it seems to be building itself up fairly naturally towards an endgame. How well that will play out is yet to be seen, and with both room to grow and to fall, I’m looking forward to seeing how this first season will end - there’s got to be a cliffhanger, right? Sure, the show was only renewed for season 2 a week or so ago, but I feel like it had enough clout going into it that banking on a renewal wouldn’t have been outrageous, even then.

What did you think about “Time of the Monkey” and “Exit Stage Death?” Let me know in the comments!