After eight influential seasons, Portlandia is finally packing it in this year, and while the show’s cultural impact has waned since its early 2010s peak, anyone still watching knows that it can often be quite funny. The show’s quirky characters and loving satire of hipster culture has become somewhat predictable, but when the show hits its targets, it’s as strong as any sketch show on television. That was largely true of “Riot Spray,” an episode which is unlikely to become an all-time classic, but had enough memorable moments to be more than worth the viewer’s time.
Our opening sketch focuses on a couple with a young son debating the decision to buy a van and go on the road. We see their visions of what van life might be like, and the joys of living freely are juxtaposed with the harsh realities of peeing in awkward places and being stuck eating gas station food for dinner every night (and the diarrhea that comes with that lifestyle). It was a perfect look at our romanticized views of situations versus the unpleasantness they actually bring. The couple decides to just move into the condo across the street, and we’re left to wonder whether if that choice will work any better for them,
From there, we move into the first segment of the story thread that lends this episode its title, and received the most hype going into the season: Fred Armisen’s angry aging punk Spike reviving his 80s punk band Riot Spray. Spike’s aimless rants about “the system” and politicians being puppets recall his Nicholas Fein character on Saturday Night Live; the hyper-political person who could never quite pin down out why they’re so angry. Spike’s directionless rage, and cliched desire to move to Canada earn some laughs, but the sketch takes off when we meet his former bandmates, played by Henry Rollins, Brendan Canty, and Krist Novoselic. They’ve gotten older, and become a tad yuppie-ish, but are far more well-adjusted than Spike, and the tension between them drives both the humor and the emotion.
In the second segment, the band drives downtown looking for a place to play a show to go and spread their message to the public, but they get sidetracked by restaurants and antique shops along the way, Some of the best moments come when our mellowed-out former punks are juxtaposed with 35-year-old footage of them rambunctiously shouting and punching each other at the height of their youth. The story works because even though we’re supposed to notice Spike’s arrested development, it also allows us to empathize with him, and the loss of both his youth and his friendship (plus, the other dudes in the band have gotten a little too comfortable these days).
The funniest sketch of the night involves a police station being taken over by a pair of insufferable NPR-type podcasters, because it was either that, or body cameras. Now, for the record, I support body cameras being mandatory in every police station, but was willing to temporarily let go of my personal politics to laugh at an amusing premise. Our podcasters are desperate for a Serial type of situation, but activity at the station is fairly mundane. Their attempts to spice things up backfire when they get thrown in jail for evidence tampering. But hey, at least the chief liked the little folk song they’d play during the show.
The most darkly funny bits of the night come when Candace takes Toni to her childhood summer home, a ranch where we meet a grizzled caretaker, played by Ed Begley, Jr. At first, we think the sketch might focus on Candace bonding more with the caretaker than Toni, but instead, it takes a sharp edge: horses are constantly trampling near their cabin, and Toni shocked to learn that the pair have no problem killing them. This can come from either building a “horse pit” than they just fall into, or waking up from a sound sleep, shooting one, and planning to deal with the body in the morning. The sketch works on its own, but is even funnier when contrasted against Begley, Jr’s. real-life dedication to animal rights activism. Knowing that in real life, he’d be mortified by his character’s actions just made the whole thing a little more special.
In the last portion of the Riot Spray saga, Spike makes good on his promise to head to Canada, and is met by a Canadian border agent played by Terry Crews (who apparently has the same name). Crews acts as a psychiatrist for Spike, getting him to realize that as much as he hates the government, and his friends for abandoning their cause, he hates himself most of all. This breakthrough leads him to re-dedicate himself, and in the end, we see Riot Spray actually reunite, and play their anthem “I Refuse,” as the episode closes. As much as this sketch mocked out-of-touch punks, and gently teased punks who have grown accustomed to upper-middle class life, it’s mostly a surprisingly heartfelt story about someone who feels passed by and is looking to regain their place in the world. Along with the usual great humor, the Riot Spray segments showcased some of this show’s finest storytelling.
“Riot Spray” is a good sign for anyone worrying Portlandia’s last season would be phoned-in. Yes, it relies on the same beats and styles of humor that have been the show’s bread-and-butter, but it avoids feeling perfunctory simply by having the same strong character-driven humor that made the show a success in the first place. Portlandia is picking the right time to go out, because in the darkness of the Trump era, it’s twee, light-hearted satire feels like a relic. That being said, it appears to have enough left in the tank to go out on a quite a high note.
-Fred is great in every Riot Spray segment, but I can’t be the only one who noticed that the “angry punk settles down” narrative could easily describe Carrie Brownstein’s life since Sleater-Kinney’s riot grrl glory. It would’ve been interesting if they’d found a way to work her in.
-They’ve got a saying up in these parts, it’s “I can’t read.’
-Apparently, Terry Crews’ job at the Canadian border is to play shrink to every angry American who Canada really doesn’t want. Would have to think his workload has gotten heavier since, say, November 2016.
-I kind of want Riot Spray to record an album, or at least an EP. Would settle for a full-length version of “I Refuse.”