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An ’80s Sitcom Is Poker Face's Funniest Clue

A writer on Rian Johnson’s mystery series tells us the secrets of a killer episode.
  • John Darnielle, Chloë Sevigny, and G.K. Umeh in Poker Face (Photo: Sara Shatz/Peacock)
    John Darnielle, Chloë Sevigny, and G.K. Umeh in Poker Face (Photo: Sara Shatz/Peacock)

    Major spoilers ahead for “Rest in Metal,” Episode 4 of Poker Face.

    At first it seems like a throwaway gag: Gavin (Nicholas Cirillo) is the new drummer for the washed-up metal band Doxxxology, and when he’s on the tour bus, he entertains himself by watching Benson, the classic ’80s sitcom. It’s just one more goofy thing about the kid, who’s a major character in “Rest in Metal,” the fourth episode of Peacock’s new mystery series Poker Face. He’s also barefoot all the time, and when he’s on stage, he gets so excited that he unleashes a surprise rock scream during his favorite song. All this makes him a lovable doofus who’s good for a laugh.

    But like everything else on this show, his quirks have hidden significance. After Gavin’s bandmates realize he’s written a song so catchy it could finally put them back on the charts, they decide to electrocute him in the middle of a concert. Suddenly, the fact that he’s barefoot means he’s vulnerable to the juice they’ve got running through the stage. And because he loves to scream, they can use that as their cue to flip the switch. Viewers who’ve seen the first three episodes can guess what comes next: Lead character Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne) notices these little things, and then she brings the band down.

    Then comes the final reveal. After Doxxxology gets caught for killing their drummer, they find out he plagiarized his song. In the final scene, they’re informed that Gavin’s tune was actually based on an unauthorized sample of the Benson theme. Even beyond the murder, then, there was a second puzzle waiting to be solved. And the answer was right there, blaring out of Gavin’s laptop while he watched old TV.

    For Christine Boylan, who wrote “Rest in Metal,” this linchpin detail had to rise organically from Gavin’s behavior. In an interview with Primetimer, she says, “The plot is never moving the characters. The characters and their weird ideas and funny mannerisms are always moving the plot. When we were in the writers’ room, we always wanted to make it feel seamless, like everything could really happen in our fun, heightened world.”

    That’s partly why Benson ended up in the script. “It was one of those shows that [some of the writers] grew up watching, and we were thinking, ‘What's a song that sticks in your head that you would never even realize you knew?’ That was the theme to Benson. Rian [Johnson, who created the series] was very tickled by the idea. He just kept laughing whenever we mentioned it.”

    Along with being authentic to the characters, Boylan wanted every detail in the episode to have some kind of impact on the story. To that end, it’s no accident that Doxxxology singer Ruby Ruin (Chloë Sevigny) wears Doc Marten boots with thick rubber soles. They not only fit her grunge rock image, but also keep her from getting electrocuted when Gavin dies on stage. And it’s not just random that her band only has one hit: That song was written by their original drummer, who kept all the royalties. Thus, when their new drummer writes a good tune, they’re believably motivated to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself. “I try to write like an actor acts,” Boylan says. “My motto is ‘use everything.’ Use every piece of furniture around you. If there's a bottle of water, then what’s interesting about that bottle? Use it somehow. And if it doesn't work, you can cut it out.”

    This philosophy sent her down a Google rabbit hole, trying to determine how this particular band could fry this particular dude. “I watched a lot of grisly things that have happened in real life,” she says. “I drew a very crude diagram of how the electrocution would take place. I played [the rest of the room] a video about the circuits. I looked up the old amps with bad wiring.”

    And again, all this plotting had to reveal something about the characters. Boylan notes that Doxxxology’s scheme teaches us who they are. “If they had concentrated this much on their music, then maybe they’d have a better career,” she quips. Plus, their selfish obsession with stealing a hit makes them miss that Gavin has lifted the Benson tune in the first place. It also makes them ignore that he’s a kind, thoughtful, creative person who might teach them something. Boyland adds, “This episode is really about listening: It’s about listening to our little drummer boy and what he's got to say. He’s got a beautiful philosophy of life. He's a mess, but the kid’s a bit of a sage.”

    The one person who does notice, of course, is Charlie. In every episode of Poker Face, she gets so caught up in the lives of the people she meets that she feels compelled to investigate whatever new murder happens nearby. That’s another reason the solution of every story has to be rooted in the characters. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be true to Charlie.

    “Charlie's obsessed with humanity,” Boylan says. “For her, it’s why people do things that really matters. The ‘how’ is interesting, but it’s mostly the why. Charlie's like the consummate student of the human condition, so in the room we were always saying, ‘How does Charlie look at the situation? Which details get stuck in her head?’ Her empathy is so huge that it gets her involved. I love that about her.”

    The first four episodes of Poker Face are now streaming on Peacock. New episodes premiere Thursdays through March 9. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: Poker Face, Peacock, Chloe Sevigny, Christine Boylan, Natasha Lyonne, Nicholas Cirillo, Rian Johnson