One of the earliest and most iconic lines in Portlandia was its designation of the city “where young people go to retire.” The description makes sense in the context of the vast early to mid-twenties population who migrated to Portland for the promise of laid-back living, but the extent of how true the “retire” portion is doesn’t get as much consideration. Between the constant influx of things to do, the ability to get comfortable doing a few favorite things, and the gloomy winter days that blur into each other, it’s incredibly easy to lose track of time in Portland, settling into a groove that can last years by virtue of content complacency. Speaking personally, I’ve lived here for coming up on eight years, and I had to check a calendar to confirm that before writing.
But at a certain point, you realize your hairline’s receding and is streaked with grey, and after years of not worrying about what comes next it rushes to the forefront of your mind. That’s the issue that Portlandia tackles in “Going Gray,” and in addressing the supposedly serious topics of mortality and moving on with your life it improbably produces the show’s most laugh-out-loud episode in recent memory. This is one of those episodes where my notes are mostly just a transcription of quotes rather than commentary, full of banter and strange directions that somehow adds up into something sweet.
A big reason for the success of “Going Gray” is that it’s another episode that elects to focus on one pairing in favor of a full-ensemble multiple-sketch format, with Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein only playing the heightened versions of themselves. The Fred and Carrie characters aren’t as flashy a pairing as Toni and Candace or Nina and Lance, but because of that they’re capable of a different brand of humor than those caricatured versions. They tend to react to absurd situations rather than produce those situations, but way that goes past basic straight man reaction—either so deadpan that it becomes absurd in itself, or offering insane suggestions in a perfectly rational. They rarely break from appearing on top of things, to the point that when they do it produces the best payoff.
Said payoff comes right at the start of “Going Gray.” Fred wakes up with a head of gray hair overnight, causing Carrie to scream and hurl a clock at a mirror, and Fred to repeat the exact same reaction when gets a glimpse of it himself. The reveal that he’s aged pushes Fred into an extreme sense of denial, the vague time of Portland so extreme that he doesn’t even know how old he is and has to consult his mother—who similarly doesn’t have any idea herself. Armisen does great work in his commitment to Fred’s confusion, as does Brownstein growing increasingly frustrated at both Fred and his mother, the two producing an easy rapport of near-nonsense dialogue. (And the way that Carrie uses a Fleetwood Mac concert date to determine his real age is a nice piece of music nerdery.)
Fred’s denial is so heavy that it leads him to seek out documented evidence of his age, made more complicated by the technology loop he’s been trapped in since season one. It’s a ruthlessly clever indictment of the constant pace of upgrading, trying to draw a straight line between so many different operating systems that entire years can get wiped away. (Fred: “Do you know if a Jaz drive can hold a zip disc?” Carrie: “I would say no.”) And to further underline how impossible it is to keep everything straight, we get the always welcome return of Kumail Nanjiani as the avatar of the unhelpful help desk. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s been so excellent on Silicon Valley of late, but placing him in a tech support role yields even better dividends than usual as he leads Fred into a discussion of entropy. (“The file will get destroyed immediately, and your keyboard will get really hot,” he says of Apple’s newest data storage service.)
The end result is a twist of typical Portlandia surreality, as Fred acquires a black hole starter kit from a bemused astrophysicist and goes full 2001: A Space Odyssey in his crusade against the “false advertising” of time. However, despite those mad twists, the story feels grounded in a way the show so rarely is. Yes, Fred’s behaving like a crazy person and saying insane things (“Can you make a black hole? I’ve seen Interstellar!”), but it’s a reaction to a serious jolt to his worldview. He wants answers to something that his typical self-centered viewpoint doesn’t allow for, and is willing to rupture the space-time continuum if it put his personal time back to his “very 32” mentality. “Going Gray” understands the idea of just how adrift the idea of getting older leaves you, so much so that you’ll occasionally take a leap of faith if you think it’ll give you the answer you want.
Carrie’s able to distance herself from the worst of Fred’s aging-based insanity, though that’s because she’s roped into her own aging-based insanity. Kyle MacLachlan’s delightful Mayor makes his first appearance this season, introduced this time with a bathrobe and an offer to Carrie. Turns out that in one of those countless events Fred and Carrie tried to connect in the opening, the Mayor was also there, and over art gallery pizza small talk the two agreed to have a child in a few years if they were still single. As always, MacLachlan’s indefatigable cheerfulness allows him to sell even the most ludicrous of directions, even when he goes the Pierce Hawthorne route and presents her with a frozen canister of his sperm. “Every mayor has a can of sperm in a beer fridge behind their desk,” he explains to an increasingly disturbed Carrie in the same matter-of-fact tone Dale Cooper used with his tape recorder.
It’s a mortifying scene for Carrie, but one that plants the seed of doubt in her mind as to whether or not she’s waited too long to plant a seed in her uterus. This is an idea that shows like New Girl and Garfunkel And Oates have explored at various points, and even a deliberately unserious show like Portlandia manages to get some pathos out of it when Carrie gets herself checked out. Her doctor—played by Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz as a graduate of the Patch Adams school of medicine and the only doctor less helpful than Andy Daly on Silicon Valley—is broadly cartoonish, but Portlandia shrewdly uses it for an effective comedic beat. She begs for another doctor, gets one, and decides prop comedy is the lesser of two evils next to cold facts about her uterine linings. As with Fred’s space walk, the absurdity only calls into sharper focus the real issues, the idea that delaying the decision may have made the decision for her.
As expected, these separate shocks force the two into a point of contemplation. Fred’s dealing with the fact that he’s spent a lot of time on this planet and doesn’t have much to show for it beyond a closet full of Apple peripherals. Carrie’s realizing she doesn’t have as much time as she thought and might have to choose between “old slut” and “old spinster” as her descriptors. And as they have for the entire series they find support in each other’s presence, and appear to realize that they might find the validation and next step they need in each other. Carrie asks if Fred wants to have a baby with her, Fred says yes, and the two decide to become intimate for the first time.
That’s two big seismic shocks to the Portlandia world, and ones that sharply rebuke my feeling from “Pickathon” that the show was rooted in its comfort zone. It’s also a move that’s both unprecedented and also a little worrisome, both destroying the Bert and Ernie asexual friendship that’s sat as a comfortable core of the series since it began, and also introducing the potential of turning hipster parents into one of the central parts of the show. While I’ve been one of the biggest proponents of a more narrative thread to Portlandia for years now, approaching the idea of Fred and Carrie becoming intimate and co-parenting is on the edge of “be careful what you wish for” territory.
But I’ll save the bulk of those concerns for next week, to see if the “Next time on…” teaser at the end of the episode is going to be real or if we’re going to just disregard tonight’s events as a standalone story. Because on its own “Going Gray” is one of the best episodes Portlandia has ever turned in, one that’s ridiculously funny and with a depth that the majority of its sketches don’t display. Getting old is a shock, there’s no denying it, but both Portlandia and its characters are finding the right way to do it.
- This Week In Portland: Changing tone for this segment as this wasn’t a particularly city-heavy installment of Portlandia, and also because real Portland produced something more interesting. Last week, local band White Glove released the music video for their new song, “Fred And Carrie,” which takes Armisen and Brownstein to task for their part in the rise of Portland gentrification over the last few years. I understand the sentiment, but I’ve never bought the argument that Portlandia is responsible for ruining Portland, as I see it more a symptom than a cause of how the city’s raised profile has gradually eroded its fringe.
- Longtime Portlandia viewers will recognize the astrophysicist as the spokesman from the Portland Nerd Council PSA back in season three’s “Squiggleman.”
- The entire opening scene of Fred and Carrie trying to connect the dots of their recent history is hilarious, and a great way to set the episode’s tone. “No, you’re confusing that with Ronaldo’s art opening that we went to about a year ago, at that gallery you really hated.” “Because there was nothing there!” “It was very conceptual.”
- “Everything on my phone is from the last year, everything on my computer is from the last two years.”
- The Mayor is the absolute best. “This is better than champagne. Twelve-dollar gum!”
- “I’m not homeless! I’m sentimental!”
- “You’re lucky I’m not my dad. He’d put his finger in your face.”
- “I’m saying your cooch is kind of cold.”
- “My hair went grey, I panicked, and I jumped in a black hole.”