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'Poker Face' showrunners talk dry ice, that twist and breaking the formula with 'Exit Stage Death'
This week, it all comes down to dry ice and Charlie Cale's dislike of actors.
This week's new episode of Poker Face, “Exit Stage Death," thrust Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne) into the heightened world of the "thea-tah" as she navigates the machinations of Machiavellian thespians, Kathleen (Ellen Barkin) and Michael (Tim Meadows). Bringing to mind other classic actor-centric mysteries like Agatha Christie's The Mirror Crack'd (1980) and Deathtrap (1982), “Exit Stage Death" is stuffed full of big personalities using their "craft" to get everything they want.
For this week's exclusive SYFY WIRE post mortem, showrunners Nora and Lilla Zuckerman tell us that this week's episode was an opportunity to construct an intricate crime that was set amongst professional deceivers. "Everything about this episode is theater," Lilla admits. "Funny you should mention Deathtrap because when we were preparing for this job, I watched the film on repeat."
**WARNING: There are spoilers for Episode 6 of Poker Face below.**
For those who haven't seen the play or the '82 film adaptation starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve, it's about a famed playwright desperate for another hit, and the manuscript he attempts to steal from his theater student. "I just loved how it had this surprising structure and how they managed to pull the rug out at every turn," Lilla says with admiration. "In my mind, all of our episodes are based on Deathtrap. But this episode also owes a lot to Noises Off, where the drama is playing on stage and backstage at the same time."
Nora adds, "And by the time we were breaking this episode, we had hit our stride in the [writers'] room, and we started to play around with our audience’s expectations within the Poker Face structure. What’s so fun about the first act is you see these two rivals locked in this death grip, where you think they are trying to kill each other, and the tension is, who is going to die first? And then we reveal that it’s a partnership. And setting the last part of the episode within the play? We were really jazzed by that."
For the whole episode, Barkin and Meadows deftly confuse the audience with their character's constant sniping, and their lousy acting that then turns out to be brilliant acting. "We knew that these two characters had to be iconic in their own right and that part of the joy of watching this episode was watching a celebrity poking fun at the monster of celebrity and fame," Nora says of what they knew they would need of the actors cast in this episode. "Both Tim and Ellen knew how delicious that was, and they weren’t afraid to lean into it. Tim is obviously a very comedic actor, but here he gets to lean into drama and romance. I think he had a great time with that."
Lilla continues, "And as much fun as she had with the role of Kathleen, Ellen also knew that her character was a real actor at heart. Ellen told me on set that she intended to perform the hell out of that final monologue, to make it startling and moving and real. To make it a truly transformative moment. She nailed it. Standing ovation, all around!"
Of course, there's also a clever device that makes this mystery a particular puzzler for Charlie: the disappearing dry ice in the trap door lock. Asked where that idea came from, Lilla says you flat out can't have great murder in a theater without a trap door. "We did a lot of thinking around the mechanics of this, but we always went back to what was the most visual and inventive: using a rod of dry ice that is slowly melting to prop up the door. And we love it when our killers use methods or materials that are specific to their world. Everybody is an expert of their own environment — you use what you know."
Nora continues, "I think I actually pitched the dry ice bit knowing it would leave no trace and could be seen as a mistake by [stage manager] Phil (Chris Mckinney). When we discovered that some fog machines actually use rods of dry ice, we were like, 'Winner!'"
And for those eagle-eyed theater geeks, Nora says they made a concerted effort to try and utilize every element of a dinner theater in the plot. "From the listening devices, the wig mics, the lights, the costumes, even the prop food," she says, listing what they wove into the episode. "At one point, we even had a joke in there about the deadly Chex Mix where we called it 'Chex-ov’s Mix' — like Chekov’s gun — when we knew that Kathleen was going to try and kill Rebecca (Audrey Corsa) with it. Alas, the joke was cut."
The first six episodes of Poker Face are now streaming on Peacock. Check in weekly at SYFY WIRE for our exclusive Poker Face post mortems with the creators and cast of the new series.