Dumpster diving, that favorite pastime of grungy, post-collegiate penny-pinchers, finally gets its moment in the spotlight in tonight's episode. Out of curiosity I once shadowed some friends who didn't mind taking that whole "one man's trash…" maxim literally, and I have to admit, their haul was pretty spectacular: a brand, spanking new hard drive, a loose set of police-car lights, and about a hundred Ecto-Cooler juice boxes with only the mildest diaper-stink clinging to them. Fred and Carrie don't make off quite so well. Like their take, tonight's episode was a mixed bag, with the show's consistently weak endings for sketches offset by some choice lines and a guest spot by the always kick-ass Aimee Mann, who's become something of an emissary between the worlds of music and comedy.
The episode leads with the reappearance of the bicycle-rights guy in a medium-funny sketch wringing jokes out of the boom-bust cycle of trendsetting and the culture of things being "over." This is one of the few sketches I feel Portlandia has managed to provide with a satisfying ending. I realize that the ending is the hardest part of the sketch to write—at least, according to some schools of comedy thought—and I also realize that critics have a tendency to get a little worked up about their strengths and weaknesses, but I bring it up because I had hoped to see the show iron out this wrinkle by mid-season. Instead, I feel like it's still batting .500, with let-downs like the sentient box capper from "orgazmic ring" butting up against goofily fun surprises like Sarah McLachlan's appearance at the end of the middle Aimee Mann bit. If you need any indication of how hard wrapping up a sketch is, look no further than Pretend Time With Nick Swardson, which often cuts them out altogether by simply panning to a conveniently located monitor at the close of each segment, like some scatological version of Hitchcock's Rope.
But I might be getting a little bit ahead of myself here. After the "over" sketch, with its awesome line "Thanks for ruining shell art!" Mann appears as a cleaning woman in Fred and Carrie's home, apparently moonlighting as a charwoman on account of music industry woes. There's some great interplay here both early on—when Fred admits that he only reads headlines—and later when Fred tries to play it cool with his incredibly vague cleaning demands by backpedaling and tossing off "I don't really care. Just have fun with it." I love the shagginess of this bit, especially the little digressions that often open a scene and that have already (in my mind) become a hallmark of the series.
I'm not a big fan of the "Coffee Land" sketch that follows, which is a bit like those wacky, endlessly forwarded clips from Japanese game shows. Fred doing a literally pitch-perfect impression of a bean snob after speaking in clipped, helium-fueled gibberish reminded me of the Kids In The Hall sketch where Dave Foley has learned to speak English phonetically, but he has no idea what the words he's saying actually mean. I know some of you feel a little lost at sea when I start blathering on about Tim & Eric, so feel free to skip the next few sentences if that's the case. "Coffee Land" is kind of like a T&E bit done wrong, where the the garish creepiness stops just short of actually being truly disturbing. The gross, but not too gross tone is maintained in the dumpster sketch, where pouring an entire bottle of salad dressing onto a meal echoes the NSFW "Just 3 Boyz" between-seasons T&E sketch starring Zach Galifanakis, which was really more a continuation of the Absolut Vodka ads than anything else. The repetition of the "You gotta get out of there" sketch is also incredibly T&E like, and it highlighted to me just how idiosyncratic and increasingly pervasive their style is. When Kristen Wiig gets up to some green-screen funny business in Virgania Horsen's Hot Air Balloon Rides, it's immediately clear who you should credit (or blame, depending on your taste).
The sexually dysfunctional "cacao" couple is also back in "Orgazmic Ring." Anyone who has a natural aversion to recurring characters in sketch comedy should be relieved by the way Portlandia handles them: Instead of being catchphrase dispensers, they just bring their particular skewed outlook to a new set of circumstances. It's a nice way to highlight the "Portland" in "Portlandia" by building a stable of citizens who can appear in a sketch or three and give the show a Springfield-like grounding in place. That said, this, "Coffee Land," and the copycat behavior in "Lucky Devil Lounge" were the low-points of "Aimee" for me—the high being, of course, the segments featuring Ms. Mann herself.
Like "A Song For Portland," this episode's narrative didn't conclude with any joke as awesome as the "You're being a dumb bitch" death-gurgle from "Farm," but I think there were solid jokes throughout—especially Fred and Carrie's repeated attempts to suck up to Mann by talking trash about other female singer-songwriters, even as they created more messes for her to contend with. And I'm on board with the show's composition of wacky costumes and outlandish characters in the stand-alone sketches and more muted jokes and anti-humor in the narrative connective tissue. Overall, a solid effort, with more weaknesses than the last episode but also with a great guest-star who's given plenty to do.