Monthly Archives: September 2014

Steve Buscemi and Carrie Brownstein Portlandia

“Celery Guy” Portlandia S4 E3 Review

Portlandia rolls out a decent episode starting off with a sketch Portland’s 911 call center has essentially been converted into a WebMD hotline. Carrie and Fred dispense the same information to every call: It’s beets. We quickly ascertain that the source of everyone’s emergency is beet consumption, but when Carrie first questions the caller on whether his salad had beets you think the sketch might be going in a dark direction – until the beets are found to indeed be the source of the problem. Portlandia employs the comedic truism that viewers love feeling smarter than the characters on-screen and the show deftly puts their own spin on it. The quality of the rest of the episode, however, is much more varied.

Two Sketches Overstay Their Welcome

Two of this episode’s sketches are funny in concept, but run their joke premise into the ground by the end. The third sketch about a woman trying to get her food at a place with a complex set of ordering rules and components (think Chipotle on steroids) resonates, but by the end we just want the girl to get her pastrami sandwich already. Similarly in a sketch towards the end, Carrie decides to declare social bankruptcy and give up all her Twitter followers and Facebook friends. The sketch answers the question you’ve all been wondering of what would happen if you just unplugged yourself, but again after the moment of connection the sketch continues on past the expiration date. Still since the sketches are both only a couple of minutes long, they don’t feel actively unfunny, just not as uproarious as any of the sketches from last episode.

Buscemi Shines in Noir Satire Sketch

The show’s narrative sketch features guest star Steve Buscemi as the celery representative on the produce council in a film noir satire. In a refreshing change of pace, Carrie takes on two dynamic roles as the egomaniacal head of the produce council as well as Buscemi’s soft-spoken wife she delivers on both counts. Fred complements Carrie in his respective roles as both a brussel sprout and bacon lobbyist, but apart from the main characters’ standard good acting, I think Buscemi suits the more dramatic tone perfectly. Here he excels as a hyperbolic version of the seedy treasurer he plays on Boardwalk Empire. Buscemi’s pathetic attempts to get the world to notice celery not only plays to his strengths, but isn’t he also the perfect person to represent celery of all produce? The sketch succeeds primarily in nailing the high-contrast, noir aesthetic and accompanying obscure dialogue, which results in a lesser emphasis on joke quality.

Kumail Nanjiani Portlandia Celery Guy

At three episodes in, it has become clear that the pet haven commercials will indeed be the new Milk Advisory Board. That’s unfortunate because the pet haven bits are derived from a central joke that Fred is an eccentric guy, which has been done better before. The last sketch of the episode is about Kumail Nanjiani quitting his day job to join the homeless Carrie and Fred only to realize that living off panhandling isn’t the life for him. Nanjiani’s apathetic performances have finally reached a point of diminishing returns because now the audience knows almost exactly how sketches with him will play out. Not to say Nanjiani isn’t a strong comic actor, but it would be best if Portlandia could give him some more diverse material or at least hold off on his droll, bureaucratic caricature for a few episodes.

Not Portlandia’s strongest showing, but this episode still had a more inspired group of sketches than the premiere. Portlandia again proves it knows its target audience with strong sketch premises, but ultimately exhausts the laughs by the end.

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Farmer Carrie and Fred Portlandia

“Ecoterrorists” Portlandia S4 E2 Review

The second episode succeeded for all the reasons the last one failed, i.e. the show capitalized on what differentiates it from every other sketch show – the Portland residents. Not just any run-of-the-mill resident, but as the pilot episode indicated, Portlandia’s Portland is the promised land for the Gen X brand aimlessness seen in films like Clerks and Reality Bites. The sketches in this episode are all over the place, but they share the Portlandia ethos.

In the first sketch, Armisen and Brownstein advertise their business renting out all of their earthly possessions. While Uber and Craigslist trend has recently boomed, the mindset where you have to cobble together pennies from renting out your stove, stems from that earnest directionlessness so popular during the nineties. By the end, Carrie is mopping someone else’s floor in strange turn of fate and Armisen’s lost track of a kid. At the end of the day, it’s all about trying to keep yourself together.

Similarly the narrative sketch where four earnest twentysomethings keep protesting an animal testing plant, but just have no idea how to actually make an impact. Each time Armisen, Brownstein, Brando and guest star Olivia Wilde in their luminescent rave outfits try to get people riled up but all they elicit is laughter. Their pathetic display of unguided passion is funny because they care so much, because if this were some sort of condescending jab it would fall flat. Even Olivia Wilde’s character, who keeps trying to take her shirt off to make a point, doesn’t understand what they’re doing, which let’s be honest we’ve all felt at some point in our lives.

The sketch where Carrie struggles falling asleep plays up the consistent dynamic where Carrie acts as smart one and Fred is the dope. I suppose this is because Armisen has the range to execute the more challenging comedic parts, but despite how often this tactic is used, the sketch is carried through by strong jokes on Armisen’s inexplicable methods of falling asleep. At the end we find that Brownstein is just as eccentric as Armisen underneath.

Ecoterrorists Portlandia Season 4 Episode 2

As a partial member of their target audience, a snarky college student with an affinity for the nineties, the sketch where Armisen and Brownstein split their apartment 18 ways to get cheap rent resonated with me. In addition to the college students, any average joe without careers in finance or medicine find it hard to have an apartment that fits more than doll furniture. The sketch hit on a simple truth and that’s all it needed to do.

While any Gen Xer would insist they know every Jay Z song, it is no secret that hip-hop and rap has a victim of cultural appropriation by hip, young whites since at least the mid-nineties. A tart sketch where Armisen overcomes his fears of being the whitest guy at a Jay Z concert by getting a 14-hour crash course on hip hop history. Similarly the final sketch hyperbolically addresses the sort of feminists that get made at any hint of patriarchy, even when it may not exist, when the owners of Women and Women First do a carwash to raise money.

Few episodes in recent memory have managed to consistently incorporate the skills of the Portlandia writers and actors in sketches that are both funny and in line with the show’s nineties tone. I had a hearty laugh at each sketch, so I’d recommend this episode if you’re interested to start watching the show or if you’d lost faith!

The League cast tebowing

Netflix Pick: The League Season 5

Netflix notified me via a thoughtful email that season five of The League is finally available for streaming! The cable sitcom chronicles a Chicago fantasy football league composed of six friends who treat interact in the boorish manner as the “friends” on Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which is also on FX. Although I would challenge someone to know less about a football than I do, the all-star comedic cast consistently delivers a hilariously crass story that even I can follow.

Semi-Scripted Gives Actors’ Freedom

It’s important to mention that The League is improv-ed, not in the Second City way, but rather each each scene has an outline and the characters just have to take the scene from point A to point B. In the first episode of the fifth season where Ruxin (Nick Kroll) decides to leave the league, the scenes play out with his friends trying to figure out why and then tempt Ruxin back into the league. As a result of several strong comedic actors playing off each other, the manages to find creative variations on common insults that can make sitting on the couch funny to watch.

The Cast Has Got Mad Range

The actors, however, come from pretty different backgrounds which means they all have different strengths that the show has embraced. Nick Kroll has a sketch show on Comedy Central, while Mark Duplass and his real life wife Katie Aselton starred in the prototypical Mumblecore film, The Puffy Chair. What could’ve been an imbalance, becomes the shows asset.  Comedian Paul Scheer and internet-famous comedian Jon Lajoie play the extreme characters on the show:  fedora-wearing wannabe Andre and stoner, ladies’ man Taco, respectively. On the other end of the spectrum,  Mark Duplass, Katie Aselton and Stephen Rannazzisi round out the cast as more or less straight men (and woman).

Being an FX show, the plots are consistently pretty explicit in sexual stuff and some serious potty humor like the season three episode, “Yobogoya” where Kevin (Stephen Rannazzisi) gets diarrhea from a gross Chinese fast-food and has to go on the road while stuck in traffic. The premises sound kind of childish, but as with any good television show, the intelligence of the execution illustrates The League is only playing dumb. From a viewing of the first episode of the fifth season where Ruxin is made to wear a bull suit with giant testicles, I think the show is continuing on the same ridiculous trajectory. Check out the show and let me know what you think about the show!