“Spyke Drives” is not the funniest episode of Portlandia, but it’s far from the worst. In fact, I would say episode five is a prototypical episode of the show because it has all the hallmarks: Carrie and Fred’s most famous characters minus Women and Women first, Fred playing a man with an annoying tic, a sketch with a surreal turn as well as one that’s fully grounded in the city of Portland. Since sketch shows can’t employ the same characters week to week like sitcoms, they have to find new ways to engage us while also remaining consistent enough for the audience to know what to expect when they tune in. All in twenty-two-ish minutes, Portlandia delivers an episode that feels familiar, but that also grows in new, interesting directions.
Peter and Nance, the owners of the bed and breakfast from last season, star in the cold open where Nance twists her ankle on a raindrop and needs Peter to drive her to the hospital. The momentum builds much like a traditional sitcom with Peter finding himself overwhelmed by common driving occurrences like cyclists and turning on red, prompting Nance to get out of the car and try walking herself saying, “you’re driving slower than I’m limping.”
The Tie Into the Cold Open Tries Something
The show makes a great decision to use characters we already know because when Nance calls Peter a “pussy” it’s twice as funny as it would be with one-time characters because Nance is normally so softspoken. Finally, Peter gets stopped by a cyclist protest against cars led by none other then Spyke, the cyclist with the ear gauges. Here the show tries something new, tying the narrative sketch into the cold open, which ties the show together well for a smooth transition.
Now I’ve always found Spyke sort of grating, which worked well in short sketches like season two’s “This Bar is Over” sketch, but I didn’t mind seeing him here switching over the dark side of car ownership. This sketch exploited simple jokes like Spyke drinking ten paper cups of water during a conversation with his boss and the cars at the dealership having oddly specific “Pack of Dudes” jeep, “Face Tattoo of Cars”).
Kumail Nanjiani Finally Gets to Play Something New
As I posited in my last review, Kumail Nanjiani returns in a slightly new role – irritating car salesman, yes, but he is humanized a little here in contrast to his previous customer service roles. This sketch continued the sitcom-like momentum from the cold open resulting in Spyke now leading the car rights protest instead of the bike protest. There are fewer laughs, but more emotional heft, and that’s OK.
Two other sketches serve up comedy from different ends of the Portlandia spectrum. Ghavin, played by Fred, incessantly questions Annie Clark, AKA indie singer St. Vincent, about all of her stage equipment after a show in a condescending manner that suggests he knows exactly what everything is. Ghavin is funny but indeed a one-note character, asking questions until the sketch tapers off. Another sketch where Fred bores a dinner party guest with obnoxious anecdotes bounds on for a bit until it veers off to a medieval flashback where the frustrated party guest gets his comeuppance. This surreal turn was more bizarre than funny, but worked in the context of the show as a whole.
Another sketch where Claire and Doug realize they show much more love to their dog than they do to each other prompts them to start treating each other like dogs. They employ a lot of visual gags and physical humor to the max that taps into a big yuppie/ millennial trend for big laughs. This quick and simple sketch capitalizes on a funny joke premise, rounding out the episode for a fulfilling episode of Portlandia.