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Portlandia: “Dead Pets”

Olivia Wilde, Fred Armisen (IFC)
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In the third season of Parks And Recreation, after observing his first sample of the lunacy that is a Pawnee open forum, town newcomer Ben Wyatt offers a surprisingly positive observation on their behavior: “These people are weirdos, but they’re weirdos who care.” That statement can just as easily be applied to Portlandia, which despite introducing countless farfetched business and personal ideas never judges the people who are coming up with those ideas. There’s no hypocrisy in either the show or its characters, as it allows them to flirt with disaster on such plans as running an illegal dairy operation, pursuing an expansion of drivers rights, or selling bootleg Simpsons merchandise in defiance of Matt Groening himself. It encourages them to experiment and succeed or fail on their own merits, making it clear that while the joke may be on them the laughter is never of a malicious sort.


That degree of acceptance makes the tonal shift of the fifth season finale “Dead Pets” all the more startling, as for the first time since Roseanne Barr tried to make Portland a real city the city’s culture of weirdness is under siege. Beginning with arson and ending with a kidnapping, it’s a finale that takes a darker tone than other episodes of Portlandia, getting closer than ever to the idea that there may be consequences for otherness and that the outside world may not be so forgiving. It steers away from any serious treatment of the idea, but the shift is enough to give the show a final jolt of energy, ending the season on a high note after hitting a midseason slump.

As the name indicates, “Dead Pets” begins by returning to the Dead Pets sketch from “SeaWorld,” as one of Bryce and Lisa’s terrible ideas has finally survived to a second appearance. That survival turns out to be short-lived though, as under cover of darkness a mysterious quartet breaks into the shop to make off with all of their taxidermy wears and then pour gas over the empty storefront. It’s a tonal shift that gets the viewer’s attention right away, one of Portlandia’s commercials taken outside of their usually isolated bubble and dragging it into the real world. And it also deserves credit for finding a way to further darken a sketch that had its share of darkness to begin with, Bryce covered in blood and holding a saw (“Where are the hand towels? I used one of the rabbits”) and then nearly sewing his thumb into a deer’s head.


The nature of a taxidermy shop being burned down and robbed elevates the act from simple arson/robbery to weird arson/robbery, and the public outcry leads Portland PD to cast a wide net for the suspect that fits the crime. For a show as accepting of weirdness as Portlandia is, it’s slightly scary to see it And while the sketch misses an opportunity to reach deep into the show’s bench and have multiple Armisen/Brownstein pairings in the interrogation room, it does cycle through a decent set. There’s artists building doll head sculptures (likely customers of Shocking Art Supplies), an video gaming enthusiast trying to get the latest Halo (also the star of the Portland Nerd Council PSA), and goths Jacqueline and Vince (whose loose definition of the month of August is enough to get them arrested for the crime).


Only a weirdo is fit to defend weirdos in a court of law, and the goths get the best representation possible with Pee-Wee Herman himself, Paul Reubens. After a season that’s largely squandered the guest talents this is a terrific turn, with a character written for the things that the actor does best. Reubens is an actor who does best when he’s allowed to go big, and his portrayal of attorney Mr. Herschel lets him hit all the histrionic heights with elaborate hand gestures and Christopher Walken-esque shifts in the tone of his voice. “Weirdos were the first people to eat kale, the first people to try marijuana, to write poems, to fall in love,” he preaches to the courtroom, promising to make any statement he needs to in order to defend the rights of weirdos everywhere.

This is an idea with a lot of potential, which makes it surprising/disappointing that the episode takes a turn when a musical confession starts to fill the room. Turns out that the ecoterrorists are the ones behind the crime, and they’re owning up to it in Let It Be fashion with a rooftop concert in the middle of downtown. I argued back in “Bahama Knights” that Portlandia should embrace the other side of its creators’ skill set and do a full musical episode, and this performance is just more supporting evidence for that idea. Just listen to the lyrics of their confessional anthem: “We took those animals from you, so they can rest in peace/We’re fighting for the rights of deer heads, and that’s our press release.” That’s legitimately fun wordplay, and a sign that musical performances should exist alongside the sketches.


Despite their public statement the group is smart enough to evade police capture, and even smart enough to split off: Benji and Dakota run for the hills to give the animals a proper burial, Britt and Brandon flee to Women And Women First and wind up taking Toni and Candace as hostages. (The latter are surprisingly subdued by their standards, likely because it’s a woman oppressing them and not a man.) And with Britt’s actions comes the third act twist, and a move that furthers the intertwined nature of Portlandia: her parents are the low-key Portland residents Malcolm and Kris, who spend most of the episode speaking disparagingly of the parents whose children grow up to be weirdos. A revelation that pays off with some great physical comedy, both engaged in elaborate choking routines once the news gives away the identity of the kidnappers.


The efforts of Malcolm and Kris to come to terms with the fact that their daughter, once set for Teach For America (with modeling on the side) gives “Dead Pets” some interesting material to play in the closing moments. Again, the show doesn’t try to shame either Britt or her parents for their choices, it allows the audience to infer how one may have led to the other and finds the joy in how the latter stumbles to deal with it. And it also steers away from the idea of an emotional reconciliation between the two—a smart choice given how recently they established there was a connection at all—choosing to have Malcolm and Kris take the blame themselves and pick up litter on the side of the street as a result. Britt later dismisses it as “so embarrassing” when she reunites with the others, a move that only builds hope for a family dinner in future seasons.

“Dead Pets” is a mostly entertaining if occasionally stumbling finale, which is about what this season of Portlandia deserves. While the decision to create more character-centric or thematic episodes went a long way to redeem the middling efforts of season four, the show’s decision to move away from that as time went on meant it surrendered that new strength and failed to meet the heights of season three. It’s a two steps forward, one step back situation, yet one that did enough right to build interest for what’s coming in season six. Here’s hoping that when Armisen and Brownstein get the band back together next year, they can maintain their focus and affection—and just maybe, bring in the actual band.


Stray observations:

  • This Week In Portland: Dead Pets has a real-life doppelganger in Paxton Gate, which offers a variety of interesting taxidermied animals as well as DIY courses for less than $500. Also, the newscaster is incorrect: that 24 Hour Fitness on whose roof the live show takes place is located at SW 4th and Columbia, not SW 4th and Salmon.
  • The bits with Toni and Candace setting up their alarm (with the same technician from the work-from-home union last week) offers some good laughs, particularly when they want to record their own message. Toni: “My body, my voice, my alarm, my choice.”
  • Seth Meyers appears briefly in the episode as a reformed weirdo and idiot, offering his expert opinions on both. He’s mildly amusing but also another sign of Portlandia’s worrying tendency to bring in big-name guest stars and make almost no use of them. It’s a trend that needs to change and hopefully will in future seasons.
  • After not taking her top off in “SeaWorld,” Britt triumphantly returns to her favorite activity and even combines it with another confession—“I DID IT” written proudly on her stomach.
  • “The question becomes whodunit? Who done the crime? That we don’t know, that we would like to know.”
  • “I just know a guy from the hill. It’s Portland.”
  • “We said the world is your oyster, and she just grabbed it by the horns.”
  • “Never again will you be behind a counter, your head over an espresso machine, while someone reads a Nicholas Sparks book.”
  • That’s another season’s coverage stuffed, mounted, and buried. Thanks everyone for reading! Hope to see you for season six.

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