As it enters its sixth season, Portlandia finds itself in an interesting place. IFC announced a few months ago that the show would be coming to an end, but that it wouldn’t be doing so until the end of season eight, giving Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein, and Jonathan Krisel three more years to play around in the odd little sandbox they’ve constructed. It’s a smart move on the network’s part to lock down this talent (given the various other projects its creative team is busy with) and it puts the show in the position of having an end far off in sight but still in sight. Would it decide to push even more boundaries with guaranteed seasons, or will episodes be phoned in with rehashed sketches?
The answer for the season premiere at least is neither, as “Pickathon” is an episode that shows Portlandia in its comfort zone: self-involved oddballs, trends taken too seriously, and a quiet surrealist streak running through the whole thing. It’s also an episode that eschews the sketch format in favor of an interconnected narrative, a decision that Armisen and Brownstein have made more often and to the show’s benefit. No one involved seems to want Portlandia to be anything other than Portlandia at this point, and given how consistently good the show’s been over the years that’s probably the right call to make.
Interestingly, “Pickathon” only features one of the show’s recognizable Armisen/Brownstein couples, middle-aged worrywarts Brendan and Michelle. The two drive the best of the episode’s three arcs, where the titular festival sounds like fun except for the fact that you have to go to the festival. (“It’s supposed to be 100 degrees and 100 percent sand in your mouth.”) The plot’s centered around a core part of Portlandia humor, characters overthinking seemingly fun pursuits to the point of sucking all the fun out of them. As is frequently the case, Portlandia’s residents want to be part of everything without escaping their comfort zones, with the end result being half-hearted reluctance.
Thankfully from inventor Ron Lynch (also known as the voice of Mr. Pig on Adventure Time and Ron the health inspector on Bob’s Burgers), there’s a solution to attending the fair. You Had To Be There adapts drone technology to put you right in the front row with audio/visual connection, circumventing all the lines and prices that keep you from enjoying the event. (Plus, you get a certificate from the festival organizer!) “Pickathon” gets a lot of mileage out of this conceit, as the virtual reality setup—an outfit that looks like Frank’s titular character was assimilated by the Borg Collective—produces some great physical comedy from Armisen and Brownstein as they lurch around trying to maneuver the cameras. It’s the next step in being on your phones during the show, too busy taking pictures and video to actually engage with the experience.
But for all their cries about “the future and modernism,” they can’t avoid engaging with festival life, as happens when they try to fly through a biker campsite. This series of events is the best part of “Pickathon,” escalating as the head biker wrestles with Brendan’s drone in his face and Michelle’s does her part by tipping over the bike. Their Iron Man interfaces have turned them into the worst of festival goers without even having to go, and they skirt responsibility… at least until Chekov’s return address comes up and he finds his way to their home. Brendan’s bravado evaporates once his door’s kicked in, and in a wonderfully cruel twist of fate, Michelle can’t hear a word through her helmet.
The biker isn’t the only one whose Pickathon experience is ruined by the drone strikes, as it also breaks up a “ladycation.” Brownstein and Orange Is The New Black’s Natasha Lyonne, back after a highly entertaining turn on last season’s “SeaWorld,” play a couple of gal pals who are determined to go “boy-crazy” at the festival. Brownstein and Lyonne enjoy an easy chemistry as they don bleach-blonde wigs and try out various ways of biting their lips, and it’s a particular treat to see Brownstein—whose characters usually fall on the restrained side—go in an airhead direction and snarl for the camera.
The run-in between Brendan’s drone and the pair triggers an adventure for the latter, as they’ve formed an attachment to a guy with the inexplicably popular hairstyle of top bun, and he loses said top bun to the drone blades. What follows is a semi-epic journey through the various guys of the festival that fit his general description—of which there are a lot—trying to crown the real one with his bun again. Here the insubstantiality of the characters keeps the joke from being more than a few good lines and bird sound effects, but once again the rapport between the two is enough to buy their simultaneous support and rivalry.
And given how excited everyone is to see the Flaming Lips perform, Portlandia manages to bring them in twice! Or rather, The Flaming Lips With Wayne Coyne and More Flaming Lips (headed by Steven Drozd). It’s a real-life battle of the bands as Coyne and Drozd are in the middle of a tiff, and both of them claim to have ownership of the band without the other. Both Coyne and Drozd give their best side-eye and disdainful looks in their scenes, but the real credit goes to Bill Benz’s direction as the feud progresses, cutting between the two at an increasing pace as their joint lawyer tries to broker a deal with increasingly petty demands. Armisen and Brownstein’s concert organizers (and the unseen David on the headset) are less participants than spectators, and neatly feed the chaos to the point that the lawyer is on stage with Coyne’s giant hands stammering through “Do You Realize?!”
The resolution of the feud is classic Portlandia pettiness, as Drozd admits he was just hurt Coyne didn’t introduce him to Sean Penn at a party (“You know how much I love Colors and At Close Range”) and it’s resolved when they realize that Sean Penn is kind of a dick. The band reunites in time to perform at the end of the episode, a welcome correction to Portlandia’s annoying tendency to bring in musical guests without letting them do anything musical. It’s a great moment to end the episode and start the season, and one that sweetly connects to the reason why people get so invested in these festivals. For all the annoyances of dealing with people to listen to live music, it’s pretty great listening to live music with people.
- We’re back for another season of fair-trade comedy! As always, looking forward to talking about this odd little show with you.
- This Week In Portland: Pickathon is an actual festival that takes place in far southeast Portland every summer. This year’s installment takes place the first weekend in August, and headlining acts include Jeff Tweedy and Yo La Tengo. We wouldn’t be surprised if a ban on drones is written into the festival’s restrictions after this episode.
- Dining options at Pickathon: The Five-Dollar Water Truck, Bacon Porkmobile, Joey’s Deep-Fried Pizza Waffles, Donut Burger Pudding Van.
- Ron’s commitment to the You Had To Be There project goes so far as to pour beer, provide laminates, and pour blue chemicals into the toilet for that port-a-potty smell.
- Presumably Sean Penn didn’t want to talk to Drozh because he’s too busy trying to begin a conversation on the War on Drugs.
- “It’s about the music first, like last year was about the horses first.”
- “I love chopping wood!”
- “I’m melting!” “No, you’re molting.” “Either way.”
- “I’d like to thank you for finding my bun and offer you a place on my shoulders to watch the Flaming Lips.”