As a result of Portlandia airing at the very start of the year, the show doesn’t have many opportunities to do holiday episodes. Big Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas episodes that other shows might do all occur before the season premieres, and so we don’t get to see the wonders of the artisanal gluten-free locally-raised turkey dinner or the insane lengths to which characters would go to have the most unique and statement-making costume. The show did make a stab at a winter special between seasons two and three, but its connection to the season was tangential at best, more about Portland’s oppressive grey winters than any specific holiday celebration.
With “4th Of July” however, the creative team has evidently decided that there’s no obligation to make a holiday episode at the same time as the holiday—apparently calendars are “so over”—and opts to set the action around the time of year where we celebrate the independence of our country by blowing up a small part of it. And despite being unstuck in time by almost six months to the day, it still works exceptionally well, compensating for its distance from the holiday by tapping into plenty of universal themes about the holiday experience.
Part of the reason for the episode’s success is that it returns to the structure used in prior season finales “Brunch Special,” “Blackout,” and “Getting Away,” where there are three separate narratives all operating around the same event. (“Healthcare” enjoyed similar success earlier this year, although that was more thematic than situational.) These episodes work so well because in addition to the feeling of connectivity, they enhance the feeling of Portlandia’s universe being as much a character as any of Armisen or Brownstein’s delightful oddballs. It’s a good set for the episode, with Kath and Dave trying to host the perfect barbeque and are cracking under the pressure, Fred and Carrie trying to attend every barbeque that they’ve gotten an invitation to, and the Mayor working on grand plans for the city’s fireworks display that are hampered by a complete lack of fireworks.
The Kath and Dave narrative plays both to the couple’s near-terminal obsession to do everything perfectly and the relatable stresses of putting on a perfect party. A nightmare about the party failing inspires the couple to hire an event planner, played by the always welcome Jane Lynch, channeling her Party Down food service credentials into a faux Martha Stewart persona. Her clients want her to give them an experience “just the other side of impossible” and she finds just the thing, the shitty punk BBQ theme. Lynch’s straight-faced delivery of all of the features most people try to avoid at parties makes the concept a hit, as does the way they manage to get around constant friendly uses of the word “fuck” by swapping the bleeps with a duck quack.
Plenty of quacks are thrown around once the party started, as they prove themselves unequal to the task of making it a party anyone wants to attend. The food is undercooked—which makes sense given that it’s still frozen and being grilled on a shopping cart—the guests are all miserable because they’re drinking cheap beer and surrounded by garbage, and Kath and Dave aren’t enjoying a minute of it because evidently their event planner brought local punk aficionado Andy to judge the event. (The chuckle Lynch has when the couple says they didn’t expect a judge only makes me happier she’s so close to being free of the flayed corpse that is Glee and free to find a project that better uses her talents.) It falls down a bit at the end given that the punchline of its failure being its success is one that’s obvious halfway through the sketch, but the commitment to the bit keeps it entertaining.
Their party might be the shittiest punk BBQ in Portland, but it’s not the only BBQ happening that day, as Fred and Carrie learn on their quest to hit up every location. While disappointingly an opportunity is missed for the two to visit the various other Portlandia couples’ parties—a Toni and Candace cookout that rejects hot dogs on account of the phallic imagery, Spyke preparing the angriest anti-establishment potato salad ever conceived—this journey does capture the desperate vibe of having so many social obligations you don’t have time to enjoy any of them. It also captures the hilarious difficulty of extricating yourself from a party quickly if you’re have more than the usual amount of social awareness, Fred’s attempts to say goodbye to everyone taking more time than the actual party itself. (He has many thoughts on Mexican salutes and the fish of Sweden.)
It’s an easy plot to engage with, and even more so because it depends on the show’s most engaging pair. Fred and Carrie’s Alexandra-based fight was one of the high points of season three, and while this doesn’t have time to build to the same conflict levels, it does make good use of how likeable the two are together and how wrong it feels when they fight. Fred’s rooftop confession to her is one that’s absurd on its face, but it’s one that still manages to feel like the sort of thing you’d be honored to hear a friend say to you: “There are certain times you don’t say goodbye! Our friendship is way more important than casual acquaintances I only know from parties!”
The fact that they’re running around to all of these parties means that the Mayor can’t call on his usual reinforcements to save the day. Clad in a Boy Scout uniform and accompanied by loyal assistant Sam—former mayor of real Portland Sam Adams getting his first lines in five seasons—he embarks on a crusade to obtain the fireworks his city needs. The Mayor is such an indelible part of Portlandia at this point it’s surprising Kyle MacLachlan hasn’t had the opportunity for his own independent story before this point, and unsurprising that he takes full advantage of the freedom. Without Fred and Carrie to provide guidance, his boyish naiveté and trustworthiness is primed to be go down the darkest of roads, which it does when he’s connected to the mysterious “Deep Web.” (Most adorably, he selects the password Mayor_9000, as it doesn’t occur to him that he may want to keep his identity private.)
These connections lead the Mayor and Sam to a mansion, owned by the enigmatic Mr. Bacon from season four’s “Celery.” Once again, Armisen is chewing scenery with gusto in his best Bond villain impression, and the Mayor’s complete obliviousness to the true nature of what he’s actually purchasing makes for the episode’s most broadly comic scenes. Bacon’s humming of “In The Hall Of The Mountain King” as he talks about how classical music is just the thing to pair with an explosion is particularly well-implemented, giving way to the real recording gradually and paced at the same rate as the Mayor and Sam get swept up in the event. (The music also smartly adds some intensity to Fred’s increasingly desperate search for Carrie, cross-cutting between the two scenes and making full use of the Edvard Grieg effect.) It’s all building to a triumphant crescendo—at least until they test their first one out and nearly knock Carrie off a roof.
In the end, everyone has a satisfying holiday: Kath and Dave are all tuckered out from the punk experience, Fred and Carrie get to make up and then bond over one last shared French exit, and the Mayor sheepishly sells his procured weapons to a man in a military outfit who looks like he has a more appropriate use for them in mind. While there aren’t a lot of Independence Day episodes to compare it to, “4th Of July” proves that calendars shouldn’t prevent the Portlandia creative team from making any holiday episode they want. Bring on St. Patrick’s Day and Labor Day!
- This Week In Portland: Portland has a variety of fireworks displays, though my personal favorite is the Waterfront Fireworks where a well-stocked barge fires off a show from the Willamette River. I’ve also attended at least one shitty punk BBQ, and heard stories of another where an attendee ruined the roasted pig by placing a certain part of his body in its mouth.
- Speaking of pigs, Birdie’s first suggestion for the party is a luau with Game Of Thrones overtones, wherein the pig is impaled on the spit while still alive. “The pig is trained to jump towards you, towards its death.” Dave: “So it’s self-defense, really.”
- Eagle-eyed viewers will catch Brownstein’s Sleater-Kinney bandmate Corin Tucker amongst the various party attendees, along with her husband (filmmaker Lance Bangs) and their children Marshall and Glory.
- I would eat the Fruit Fauxhawk. It looks good.
- “I can’t wait for you to see the shorts I’m gonna wear!”
- “Hope this food gets here soon, I’m starting to get drunk.”
- “If I had known about a music that could cater to my volume and attitude about life, I would have had a whole different childhood.”