At the end of last week’s Portlandia review, I talked about how while I loved the episode, I had some concerns about the direction that the story appeared to be headed. The decision that Fred and Carrie made to go the Friends With Kids route and have a child together was one that made sense in the context of the narrative, but also promised to entirely upend some of the show’s core principles. Fred and Carrie having sex—let alone having a kid together—felt like such a betrayal of the Bert and Ernie dynamic the two share that it was tantamount to blasphemy, one that even if their characters only appeared occasionally would still have a ripple effect on the rest of the greater universe.
These concerns turn out to be unfounded, as while they ended “Going Gray” on a serious character moment, the action of “Shville” leans almost immediately away from that and somehow manages to go even more surreal than its predecessor. (And that episode had Fred taking an Interstellar leap into a portable black hole.) It manages to take both the real parts of Fred and Carrie as characters and the unreal parts of Portlandia’s twisted universe, and manages to sync them up in a way that doesn’t betray character or hurt how damn funny the show can be. Along with “Going Gray,” it creates Portlandia’s best arc since the Alexandra storyline in season three.
Admittedly, the episode does technically go the distance by having Fred and Carrie have sex in the first scene of the episode. However, given their interaction is divorced from any definition of the word “intimacy,” it allows the show to have it both ways. The interaction is fully clothed, as full of odd banter as their conversation last week about trying to remember what they’d done the past few nights, and at angles that indicate neither their hearts nor their parts are in it. (Plus, Fred finishes on her stomach. Twice. “Ah, idiot.”) It manages to steer away from any sort of permanent ramifications to their friendship, and keeps things simultaneously light and in character for both of them.
With the direction of fatherhood removed from his life, Fred needs to find something else and heads back to his grade school days. Portlandia ensemble player Henry Cottrell reprises the role of unflappable counselor from “The Fiancée,” and once again produces some great reasonably helpful advice by way of pamphets—and excellent annoyed grunts when Fred turns each one down—that eventually leads to the decision to move to Austin. Six seasons in it’s surprising that Portlandia hasn’t offered any take on Austin, as the two cities share a lot of DNA: slogans about being weird, reputations as ultra-liberal enclaves, vibrant music and alcohol scenes, popular places for youthful migration.
And in some cases, they’re a little too similar. Portlandia isn’t a show that makes me cackle out loud very often—its casual brand of humor produces mostly chuckles and guffaws—but I was practically gasping with laughs at the reveal that the Mayor of Austin was played by Kyle MacLachlan sporting a mustache and bolo tie. Seeing Austin and Portland’s mayors are not only doppelgängers but also friends is worlds better than setting up any sort of rivalry, allowing MacLachlan to try out-chippering himself. (“Keep it weird!” “Keep it weird!”) And it also means he produces one of Portlandia’s best one-off segments in recent memory, a VHS tape on finding a cool neighborhood steeped in AV Club (no, not this one) technology.
Besides those gags however, the actual world of Austin barely exists in Portlandia. As easy as it would be to create some sort of Austin/Portland juxtaposition, perhaps with cowboy versions of Toni and Candace or Dave and Kath, “Shville” is only as interested in Fred moving to Austin as the residents of Austin are—i.e., for only ten seconds. Instead the focus remains on Fred’s desire to make his move mean something, which he does by continuing the move from Nashville to Asheville to Shville in search of someone who’ll validate his quest for existence. All he finds is the fugitives and refugees like him, who’ll offer him a place on their raft to keep moving east.
Here’s where things go off-kilter in the best possible way, as we’re transported from the shores of the river to community musical theater. Fred and the expatriates row their boat across the “seas” toward Europe, singing about all the wonderful things that they’ll find. (“Old friends will wonder where I’ve been/I heard from Jack he’s in Berlin!/Sailing all the way to gay Par-eeeee!/I’ll probably grow a goatee!”) The hilarious cheapness of the number—you can see the trash bags being shaken to simulate waves—somehow only makes it all the more endearing. It underscores the tissue-thin motivations Fred had to undertake this journey, and the score switching to a somber note suddenly makes him realize what a disastrous idea this all was.
Back in Portland, Carrie’s considering going the You’re The Worst route and jam a sperm-filled turkey baster up inside her, but is distracted by a knock at the door. It turns out that the Mayor didn’t suggest having a kid with her so they could both have the experience, because it turns out he’s already got four kids, one of whom is played by Alia Shawkat. The Mayor, that thoughtful guy, sent them there so Carrie can get a taste of the parental experience and they can get a taste of her orange juice. As expected it’s a rough experience for her, between Shawkat at her most enjoyably frenetic turn since she played Ilana’s twin on Broad City and Armisen doing his best impression of a moody Jean-Ralphio Saperstein.
Carrie eventually manages to rebound, and goes through a journey that has more highs and lows than Fred’s, evidenced by various trips to the grocery store. First she begins to buy into their lunatic vibe via a brightly colored dance number set to Paul Fletcher’s “Jump Up,” one of Portlandia’s better-constructed musical moments. And then, once everything’s settled into a comfortable albeit creepy dynamic, the discovery of the Mayor’s sperm by one of the kids and the disclosure that it’s not inside creates a horrified sense of betrayal. Brownstein’s deadpan reactions to both circumstances further highlight the extremes: “You’re not our real mom?!” “I’ve been totally clear about that.”
While Fred’s journey reaches its low point in a scene that evokes community theater, Carrie finds hers in a literal production, as the kids take to the stage to vocalize their hurt feelings. It’s another play where the badness of it is what makes it so entertaining, with cheesy song lyrics (“What makes a family? OJ and TLC”) and histrionic performances spread out over ten acts. Carrie goes from feeling mortified to feeling oddly prideful of the event, certain blinders of having children already up through this tangent, and it calls into full view the reality of what she’d sign up for in parenthood.
As it must, the saga concludes with Fred and Carrie finding their way back to each other, managing to reset the status quo in a way that—like their failed sexual experience—is perfectly in keeping with the show’s worldview. Fred opts to dye his hair black and live in denial about his aging. Carrie’s decided that she’s comfortable being an old spinster and gets her tubes tied, even throwing a ceremony for it. (Possibly one where Jane Lynch was ) And when Fred gets caught up in the moment and suggests they go ahead and get married, everyone agrees it’s a bad idea and he gets a vasectomy as well. It’s perfectly fitting for the deliberate bubble that Portlandia characters construct, and closes the arc unequivocally.
- This Week In Portland: The Mayor and Carrie go to see the kids’ play at the Alberta Rose Theater, located at the eastern end of Alberta Street.
- Mitch Hurwitz’s OB/GYN presides over the ceremony in a welcome return. “I’m not a pastor, I’m a guy who gets fingers in…”
- Very distracting continuity error (for me at least): Fred is seen taking the portrait of him and Carrie along on his move, and a few scenes later that same portrait is seen hanging in its usual place between their beds.
- The orange blazer Shawkat wears to emulate Carrie’s fashion sense is a great touch.
- Fred and Carrie sharing their respective news about children and moves is a clever take on house party small talk, where if you’re making the rounds you’re likely to tell the same story four or five times in a row.
- The effectiveness MacLachlan as the Mayor of Austin makes me hope that if they ever introduce the Mayor of Seattle to play into the Mayor of Portland’s long-standing hatred of that city, they also cast MacLachlan for that, putting him in a flannel shirt and a Snidley Whiplash mustache.
- Also a big success: Fred’s GPS and its odd directions. “Would you like to reroute to Long John Silver’s?”
- Carrie: “Do you need magazines?” Fred: “Yes!” Carrie: “I only have The New Yorker. … I think there’s a thing in Talk of the Town about a woman.”
- “Are you basting something?” “My ovaries.” “Congrats!”
- “It’s the kind of neighborhood with an intimidating cat.”
- “I wanna crawl up on top of your head like a squirrel.”
- Fred: “I know the sex thing didn’t work out…” OB/GYN: “It never does.”