Boyle’s BBQ is a family-run joint in East Texas. Co-owner Taffy Boyle is a showman with a “MEATKING” license plate and a local radio program. He runs the business side, while his sister-in-law, Mandy, rules the front-of-house operations. Taffy’s brother, George, is the pitmaster, but George starts to have doubts about his profession. A new employee lends him some DVDs, including Okja, a film that vilifies the meat industry, and George takes the drastic step of becoming vegan. “I’m a murderer,” he says, on his knees, weeping at the sight of a smoker full of briskets. That’s how the third episode of the new show Poker Face, airing on Peacock, kicks off.
Natasha Lyonne stars as Charlie Cale, a private investigator who mixes the inquisitiveness of Columbo with the snark of Jim Rockford from The Rockford Files. Ten episodes are planned for this season, and the first four were released last Thursday, with new ones coming on subsequent Thursdays. In each episode, Charlie finds a murder to solve, sometimes reluctantly. She is also on the run, heading east from Las Vegas and looking for short-term employment at each stop. Episode three, titled “The Stall,” focuses on her stint working with Taffy (Lil Rel Howery), Mandy (Danielle Macdonald), and George (Larry Brown) at Boyle’s BBQ.
“We were looking for really immersive and specific worlds that were interesting for Charlie to discover and learn about,” Wyatt Cain, the writer for episode three, told me. Back in fall 2021, when the show’s writers gathered to construct the season, they pitched their ideas for those worlds. Cain wanted to write an episode around barbecue. As a New Jersey native living in Los Angeles, Cain didn’t grow up with a deep connection to the cuisine, but he did acquire a smoker in 2020. “Barbecue became one of my pandemic hobbies,” he said. Lilla Zuckerman, one of Poker Face’s showrunners, sold her Green Mountain pellet smoker to Cain when she moved. He’s now mastering smoked chicken wings, baby back ribs, and even whole briskets in his California backyard.
For the script, Cain studied the Franklin Barbecue cookbook for details about cooking the perfect brisket. “One place we kinda modeled it after was Snow’s BBQ, thanks to the Chef’s Table episode,” Cain said, referring to the episode released in 2020 featuring pitmaster Tootsie Tomanetz of Snow’s BBQ in Lexington. Customers at Boyle’s BBQ dine on trays full of brisket, ribs, hot links, slaw, and beans at outdoor picnic tables, much like at Snow’s. While working as the pitmaster, George Boyle pays close attention to the details of cooking barbecue. With lines like, “The stall is where a kind of alchemy takes place,” he shows a thoughtfulness about the process. “The profound, sagelike figure of Tootsie as this pitmaster-philosopher was something we were borrowing for the character of George,” Cain said.
The exact location of Boyle’s BBQ isn’t given, though Taffy sends greetings to the East Texas towns of Nacogdoches, Carthage, Belgrade, and Pineland on his radio show. Mandy at one point says she’s from Tanglewood, which is near Lexington. Cain said Lexington was the setting they originally had in mind, but they needed to move it to East Texas. The episode was filmed in New York’s Hudson Valley, whose wooded surroundings look more like East Texas than Central Texas.
What struck me about the episode was how detailed the writers got with the barbecue knowledge George was teaching Charlie. He referenced cooking times and temperatures, the characteristics of different hardwoods, and the fact that to serve a good brisket, one must “always slice against the grain.” Barbecue itself became a character, unlike the bit part it normally plays on screen. And for that, the crew needed some real barbecue.
Joaquim Rodrigues has been catering and competing under the name Bearded Boys BBQ for the past eight years. He’s working to open a restaurant in Shawagunk, New York, near his home in Pine Bush in the Hudson Valley. He specializes in Texas-style barbecue, and was hired to build a smoker for the show, which he named the Chained Beast. The steel offset smoker is heavily featured in the episode, and is now part of the Bearded Boys BBQ fleet of smokers. Rodrigues was on set for seventeen days straight cooking all the barbecue featured in the show, and offering his own suggestions on the script. He even taught Lyonne how to slice brisket. “The most nerve-racking thing was the timing,” he told me. With up to five scenes per day that required fresh barbecue, he didn’t want to be the one to mess up the schedule because the meat wasn’t done.
After a couple of episodes of Poker Face, you’ll realize Charlie’s investigatory catchphrase is “bullshit.” The writers and actors got most of the details right, but there were a few times where I found myself muttering the same—like when the Texas pitmaster called out the four different kinds of wood he uses, including apple and cherry. I’ll give that a pass because the various woods were required for a particular plot point. A brisket being done at 210 degrees internal is a bit high, and an eight-hour cook time for a whole brisket is on the low end, but the only egregious error was the half carcass of beef hanging in the restaurant’s cooler. That hasn’t happened for a half century at least. We all know the cooler would be full of Cryovac-packaged meat inside cardboard boxes. “That one was definitely a bit of a cheat,” Cain said, “but we really loved the imagery of George, as he’s having this existential crisis, staring at a carcass of beef.”
Each episode of Poker Face contains its own story, but it would still be helpful to start with the first one to get some of the background before jumping to “The Stall.” Once you get there, you’ll figure out the killer, the victim(s), and the unusual murder weapon available at a barbecue joint. I was a fan of Columbo and reruns of The Rockford Files growing up, so Poker Face was like nostalgia television for me. I’m also too cheap to spring for the premium version of Peacock, so the commercial interruptions only added to the effect. And as a barbecue nerd, I was happy to not be rolling my eyes at a bunch of barbecue myths captured on film. Rodrigues agrees. “Not many people know all the details,” he said, “but for the people who do know, they should be like, ‘that’s pretty accurate.’ ”