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Portlandia: "A Song For Portland"

Illustration for article titled iPortlandia/i: A Song For Portland
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More than a few of you thought I was too hard on last week's episode of Portlandia. Well, without the need to deliver a musical statement of purpose at the top of this week's episode, "A Song For Portland" is free to open in high style with "Put A Bird On It!" which might be my favorite sketch of the series so far. Whether this bit is gently lampooning some HGTV show I haven't seen (or just goofing on the preponderance of bird-related bric-a-brac on Etsy.com) is kind of irrelevant, since the redecorating-program conceit is razor thin and barely adhered to anyway. Which is fine, because Carrie Brownstein really sells it as a designer who considers bird silhouettes the be-all end-all. It's nice that she gets more of a chance to shine here than she generally did in the first episode. I have to hand it to Fred Armisen though. When he says, "Just paint the bird or whatever it is you need to do. And don't blow on things," he perfectly captures the tit-for-tat response of someone who's freshly annoyed but hasn't yet settled on an appropriate target for his rage.

And now, for the introduction of the episode's narrative spine and the guest-star appearance that elicited delighted mini-shrieks from the female members of my household: Kyle MacLachlan as Portland's mayor. In a bit that reminded me of Springfield University's "uptight" dean, Bobby Peterson, MacLachlan plays the too-cool elected head of Portland who commissions Carrie and Fred to write a song celebrating the city but warns them not to "make it like Seattle." As I mentioned last week, there's some Tim & Eric cross-pollination in the production and writing of these episodes, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the whiff of Tom Goes to the Mayor that this scene throws off. Sure, MacLachlan is cool where the Mayor was crazed, but the scene's other elements—Fred and Carrie approaching with an awful idea only to have the Mayor ignore it entirely so he can sketch a dog, the award for the town website, the mayoral redirecting of Fred and Carrie's energy onto one of his own projects—that stuff is classic TGTTM territory.

Like The Kids In The Hall, Portlandia is not above conducting raids on the sketch group's pre-TV output, and even more than "The Farm," "A Song For Portland" leans on ThunderAnt's videos for content. The originals are incredibly satisfying, funny kernels of quirk, and maybe that's why this episode worked so well for me, reheated leftovers or no. The feminist bookstore sketch features Aubrey Plaza in the Andy Samberg role from this sketch, and the concept of the song for Portland is ripped wholesale from this one here, where Fred and Carrie are attempting to improvise their way to the greatest song of all time. Yes, the song sketch is given a bit more of a structure this outing, but the individual elements are pretty similar, even down to the "punk" part Fred grudgingly agrees to. Of course, when you borrow so heavily from the ThunderAnt material, the question is how the two versions stack up to each other. I'd say it's a wash: Armisen's inability to reach a book right above his head is hilarious in both videos, but the original improvised song (obviously fertile territory for Armisen, considering SNL's Garth and Katt, diminishing returns notwithstanding) is, to me, the superior one.

I'm of two minds about the next two sketches. The first—about a couple overreacting to the sight of a dog chained up outside a restaurant—might as well feature the same two characters from the "Chicken" sketch in the pilot, and I'm sure that Portlandia is going to find plenty of other self-serious alternative types to poke fun at before the season's through. In a way, I think this shaggy, improv-heavy sketch is what Portlandia brings to the table as a TV show, and it's what I was talking about when I referred to recalibrating our comedy expectations a bit. But, the "Cacao" sketch, which escalates very predictably and even uses a needle skip, works so much better for me. Aside from Brownstein's use of the Deeptone 5000 voice modulator, it's a bit that's so by-the-book that the left-field capper Armisen puts on it seems to be there solely to remind you that you're watching an outré sketch show on IFC. I prefer having a few rods of classic comedy rebar reinforcing the structure of my offbeat sketches. Without them, episodes can start to feel pretty formless, inspired ideas or no. (Exhibit A: The State.)

Finally, we're back to the Mayor's office to wrap up the plot with some "mind-fi"-like over-stimulation and the Portland song sung over the closing credits. Maybe this episode relied a bit too much on ThunderAnt material, and maybe the narrative didn't go out with the bang that last week's did, but I'd be thrilled if the other four episodes match the level set here, with more consistent laughs, more Carrie Brownstein, and more punchy, almost interstitial bits like "Bicycle Rights" to round things out.

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