Category Archives: Portlandia

Spyke Drives S4 E5

Portlandia S4 E5 “Spyke Drives” Hits All Show’s Marks

“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.

Fred Armisen in Doggy Door

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.

Pull Out King Portlandia

“Pull-Out King” Portlandia S4 E4 Review

Sometimes when a comedy has targeted a very specific niche and succeeds at turning out material relevant primarily for that niche, the show loses sight of what appeals to everyone – plain old, funny jokes. Portlandia in “Pull Out King” focuses on polishing premises about middle-aged yuppies tailgating Prairie Home Companion so much so that they seem to have forgotten how to just deliver laughs.

 Windy Sketches Without the Payoff

Given the limited amount of time sketch shows have to tell a story the underlying premise not only needs to be funny, but more importantly it needs to be simple. The Portlandia season two finale where Carrie and Fred run into increasingly strange and unprecedented obstacles while trying to get into Portland’s coveted new brunch spot harnesses the confusion and contrasts it with the mundanity of going to brunch, but this episode’s sketches are instead irritatingly windy without a payoff.

Perhaps the cold open sketch about a man waking up from a coma he had been in since 1986 just didn’t land with me as I don’t have a firsthand experience with the 80’s, but I think the sketch struggled mainly because it just wasn’t sure what it wanted to be. The now middle aged man wakes up from his coma and goes on a rampage yelling “yuppies” at all the yuppies of Portland. The idea that Portland is constituted entirely of yuppies in denial is sort of the premise of the entire show, but the joke runs dry by the end of the sketch. The man in the coma ultimately ends up playing music with homeless people, played by Carrie and Fred, who don’t appear to be yuppies or have any bearing on the heretofore established plot. Endings do not have to be predictable, in fact it is best when they are not, but they do have to fit into the internal logic of the sketch instead of veering off track inexplicably.

 Lance and Nina Mark Return of the Weakest Links

The narrative sketch is an unfortunate reprisal of who might be my least favorite characters on the show, Lance and Nina, where Nina thinks she’s pregnant challenging Lance’s notion that he is the Pullout King. Again the premise of a pullout king sounds like comedic gold, but the main characters are so completely unlikable it’s hard to empathize with their problems enough to care where the story heads. Fred’s Nina is a shrill and vapid woman who talks incessantly while Lance is pretty much just an archetypal macho douchebag. The sketch plays out predictably with the two learning more about parenthood until the story veers off to Jeff Golbum playing the Pull Out King, of pullout sofas. The sketch harkens back to a SNL sketch from years ago called Sofa King that too worked on double entendres and furniture commercials. That sketch, however, succeeded in its simplicity whereas this sketch exhausted the joke potential of saying pull out king pretty early. The only moment that really landed for me was the bit of physical comedy that would make Jim Carrey proud where Lance and Nina try to have sex on a pull out couch they bought that can’t be completely unfurled because the apartment’s too small.

Two more of the sketches in this show succeeded due to tangential factors. A middle aged Carrie and Fred tailgate Prairie Home Companion, a live radio show popular with (yuppie) public radio enthusiasts. That sketch is edited increasingly quickly as the two get increasingly raucous each hour counting down to the event – until Fred falls asleep. The ending was abrupt as that. It felt like there should be another scene afterwards to really end it, but instead the ending killed the momentum built up from the two acting out every middle-aged, yuppie fantasy. Similarly a sketch where Fred forgets to respond to a friend’s baby notification until ten years later began with some action, but ended with a long discussion between Fred and the redheaded boy we have seen in such sketches as the Rube Goldberg machine and more recently “Ecorterrorists”. The sketch was framed as a sort of thriller race against the clock spoof, but then again the momentum is undercut with the boy berating Fred for his poor life choices. Luckily, here the boy delivers his lines with such an ear for comedic timing, the subpar content is almost irrelevant.

Prairie Home Companion Tailgate Portlandia
(Credit to IFC)

The final sketch is a hipster Carrie dating a square, tax lawyer which might be my favorite of the episode because it features an intervention, a la the A&E show, to dissuade the tax lawyer from trying to join a band in an effort to be cooler. The underlying sentiment rings true to all the goobers, like myself, who watch Portlandia and wish they were half as cool as Carrie or Fred. The tax lawyer presents a fresh look of someone who hasn’t been sucked into the Portland-life as depicted in the show, which is a refreshing change of pace. When the tax lawyer ultimately puts on a staged theater version of his tax law business to rave reviews, the surreal ending finally fits the sketch.

All in all, not horrible television but inconsistent enough that at the end you feel disappointed at all the squandered potential.

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.

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!

Ghost Carrie and Fred from episode 1

“Sharing Finances” Portlandia S4 E1 Review

Portlandia’s fourth season opened up to a weak start due to a series of creatively competent sketches that never really climaxed. There were no major indications that the show looks flat for the upcoming season because these sketches were moderately funny, but none stuck out in my mind as among the best.

Often the famous guest stars bring baggage from prior projects or are give a role that plays to their strengths that helps them garner extra laughs, but in this case I felt Kirsten Dunst was miscast in the show’s cold open. The sketch featured Dunst as a young woman house sitting for her aunt who ultimately dies after the house’s prior residents, played by Armisen and Fisher, haunt her with contradicting “facts” from various periodicals. In the tradition of the horror heroine, the part calls for someone – like Jamie Lee Curtis inHalloween – who is naive that the audience can quickly identify with. Dunst has hit home roles of more detached and unlikable characters in recent films such as Melancholia and Bachelorette so quickly empathetic isn’t quite in her roadhouse. If that were the only problem then I think the sketch could’ve coasted by, but I also found it to be underwritten. The headline in the newspaper describing the couple’s death says they died of “confusion,” which was just short of an astute observation to be funny.

Date Fact-Checking Hits the Mark

I found that dating fact-checking sketch the most consistently funny, maybe because I have much more experience with dating than joint checking accounts. This sketch was the only one that developed the jokes to completion, including references perfect for its demographic i.e. Juno, TV on the Radio, and Breaking Bad. The post-date interview between Armisen and Kumail Nanjiani, who if you recall is the same energy associate from the Blackout finale, played well off each other. Armisen plays inept everyman roles well while Nanjiani excels as playing the everyman’s rival, irritating customer service representatives.

Best Humor is the Meanest

The throughline sketch where Claire (Fisher) proposed joining bank accounts with her slacker boyfriend Doug (Armisen) had about one funny joke per segment, but I don’t believe it was one of the stronger narrative sketches. The middle segment where Doug and Claire inquire to the bank clerk works the best because the humor is visceral – the bank clerk has contempt for the couple, Claire has contempt for the intractable bank clerk and Doug is still trying to understand how bank accounts work. Claire tears down the bank clerk, played by Vanessa Bayer of SNL fame, for being single and not understanding the significance of joining bank accounts.

The other two segments would’ve worked better if Armisen and Fisher could’ve exploited some under-the-surface tension regarding the couple’s unequal contribution to their relationship that they’re trying to solve with joining bank accounts. Resentment works great in short sketches because jabs of anger can be thrown out, usually resulting in some great one-liners. The final segment of the joint accounts sketch where Doug bought a hot tub with Claire’s money seemed more like a How I Met Your Mother plotline than a well thought out Portlandia sketch, but I think they redeemed themselves with the biggest laugh of the episode where the maybe-insane, elderly hot tub salesman tells Claire that “recent studies have shown that ancient studies have been confirmed that hot tubs can significantly increase your income.”

The sketch about the difficulty of finding reasonably-priced downtown parking resulted in some mild laughs, because that’s a struggle everyone can relate to these days, but just like the computer-written, inspirational quotes sketch, I didn’t remember them until I sat down to write this review. Obviously since this show is written and acted by such talented people, the problem isn’t normally with the sketches being unfunny but rather them being ultimately forgettable.

 

Carrie and Fred worried about the Portlandia blackout

“Sharing Finances” Portlandia S3 Finale Review

Let’s get this out of the way, the plot’s specifics don’t make that much sense because the central government not paying their power would not trigger a city-wide blackout but as is the case with most sketch comedy, Portlandia’s strengths are not in its impeccable plot construction. Instead of really addressing the logistics of the electricity outage, the show riffs on yuppie responses to catastrophe and customer service which is always ripe for humor. The customer service representative explaining that “immediately means six business days later and today means tomorrow” was probably my biggest laugh all episode.

Just like the season’s finale before this one, Portlandia chose to tie the threads from all the season’s episodes together this episode. The show uses the blackout trope, often seen in comedies and dramas alike, to provide a single experience for all the characters we know and love to lampoon. The show knows its strengths, a great ability balance surreal humor with realism as well as Fred Armisen’s expert range, but perhaps the biggest of all is the city of Portland.

Portland: Yuppie or Hipster?

The show brought together its many disparate characters within the theme of hipsterdom all the while combining conventions of sitcoms and dramas. The biggest sitcom-y plot is Carrie and Fred both dating Chloe Sevigny’s bisexual character, turning a tired two people dating the same person trope on its head for laughs. On the other end of the spectrum the birds signaling an impending apocalyptic event is a convention of dramatic films like Signs and is again used to comedic effect with Nance telling Peter how stupid he sounds for describing the barking cat he saw. Mixing all of that could get quite muddled along with combining the many different plotlines, but in this case Portlandia did an amazing job blending the conventions and exploiting the humor inherent even in the drama.

I found the Birdman plotline stick out in my mind with this episode as it incorporates the common trope of a mysterious, outsider who manages to insert himself with the right, obscure knowledge at the right time – think Quint from Jaws. Here though Portlandia combines this with the cocky Crocodile Dundee type Australian man to add to the hyperbole and show him acting like a con artist attempting to bilk Nance and Peter out of a room. Luckily the show never gets carried away with the Birdman character pontificating and instead gets the cocksure Birdman (Bill Hader) and nebbish Peter together and the interplay between the two is hilarious. (“Name the Beatles.” “Neener?”)

Quick and Dirty Sketches

I appreciate the show including the Milk Advisory Board in a quick and dirty sketch about Royce’s girlfriend, Tania. She appears to be a Ring-type otherworldly woman and apparently this blackout doesn’t agree with her sensibilities. The show hits the funny points without stretching on too long, something SNL still struggles with on occasion. The lovely women of Women and Women also make an appearance. Although they play a part in getting the power back on, it’s still short enough that we don’t get tired of them.

My main complaint is that the whole mayor part isn’t as funny as it could be, which is unfortunate because it is sort of the main story. The idea of him in some sort of survivalist cult just harkens back to the previous season’s finale where Fred and Carrie are forced to enter another enclave where Tim Robbins is the leader. The joke is fairly well executed, but comes across as tired and not particularly consistent with the mayor’s character. Overall I would say this is a strong episode, not just for the usual laughs, but also for its ability to craft a story from sketches that don’t always lend themselves so well to narrative.