The tricky thing about looking seriously at Portlandia’s sense of humor is that sometimes it’s hard to tell exactly who the joke is on. Because the delivery is so deadpan and the show’s targets are so specific, it’s debatable if they’re trying to make fun of a sketch’s subjects, the people reacting to the sketch’s subjects, or everyone involved. Season three’s Portland Nerd Council was a prime example of that, where its sincerity in the middle of satire made it feel out of place and clouded how effective it was (though in that case Patton Oswalt and others were there to extract it from the episode and give it deserved exposure). This season, “The Story Of Toni And Candace” told the girls’ origin story, but its broader tone made it an open question how much if any of the story was embellished.
“Doug Becomes A Feminist” is an episode that suffers from that worrisome ambiguity early on, with another PSA—this one devoted to National Coming Out Day. Fred and Carrie say they want to support everyone in their sexual orientation, even if that orientation falls on the ultra-specifics like “hetero-speculative” and “homo-textual.” Despite bringing up some laughs in the wordplay, there’s something that feels off about the whole affair, as if by making a joke about it it’s not being respectful enough of how important the act coming out is to a lot of people. It’s not being done at the expense of those people—an important distinction to make—but the feeling that they could be handling this joke more gracefully doesn’t go away.
Thankfully the episode shakes off these tendencies for the runner sketch, which clearly knows exactly who its targets are. Doug, after an offhand comment from the maid about how well he folds laundry and supports Claire being the breadwinner by virtue of not working, realizes that he’s a feminist. There’s no ambiguity in the presentation here, as Doug’s feminism is so clearly surface-level at best, his commitment so adamant that it keeps him from noticing the true level of his ignorance and hypocrisy. The humor of the bit is also amplified by the fact that Claire isn’t buying his conversion for a second, and reacts to it with a total deadpan “of course you are” attitude. (Doug: “I’m… subverting the patriarchy!” Claire: “I’ve never thought of it like that.”)
Where the sketch finds its real gear is in sending Doug out to find a group of like-minded individuals, and the bad ideas get worse as a full mansplaining circle is born in a closed bookshop. It’s an exhibition of the worst tone-deaf qualities of surface-level activism, a ruthless portrayal of the sort of group that demands a saturation bombing of “Check your privilege” reminders. Some gems from the meeting that I’m sure exist on some disgustingly self-congratulatory message boards:
- “I’ve never hired a geisha. I’ve been saying to ladies on the street ‘Are you a doctor?’”
- ‘Yeah, I don’t even see hair color.” “I don’t even see hair. Like, I just see bald women.”
- “I just wish there was a way we could be validated… We want to brag about being male feminists. For lack of a better word, it’s bragging.”
In the end, the group gets what they deserve: Doug stands up for his principles in the middle of a movie, fails to see the problem with either his principles or his choice of setting, and gets his ass kicked by Lance. (True, Lance is catcalling the screen, but thanks to our history with him and Nina we know he’s generally respectful of women.) Doug doesn’t learn the folly of his ways at the end, which is to be expected for the character who went from buying hot tubs to Deloreans in the season four premiere. And his not learning a lesson is a pointed reminder that people with this mentality rarely do, giving the sketch a sharper bite than many of Portlandia’s satirical ventures.
The ending of that story also ties in nicely with an earlier sketch, as we got to see the creative process of Mermaid Springa. Frances Ha star Greta Gerwig plays the film’s lead actress who is seeking some tips about playing a strong female character, and seeks enlightenment from the owners of Women And Women First. Few things in Portlandia are more enjoyable than watching Toni and Candace embrace a new career—i.e. their stint as cheerleader coaches last year—and their interactions with Gerwig as they note the script and try to imprint their tics into the character of Millicent are fantastic. Or rather, Militant, one of many wonderful edits that also includes sending the romantic interest off to surf and never come back. Gerwig is so game for their suggestions and enjoys such a rapport with Armisen and Brownstein that it’s a disappointment they choose not to continue this plotline beyond showing the movie, as I would have watched a whole runner sketch about Toni and Candace on set.
Certainly, more time devoted to Gerwig and Mermaid Springa would have been preferable to the rideshare sketch, wherein Sandra needs a ride to Seattle and gets a lift from the Platonic ideal of horrible companions. Armisen’s Joey starts out as the worst and only goes downhill from there, ranting about various kinds of food he doesn’t like (“You know what kind of butter I don’t like? Hazelnut butter”) and transforming the act of stopping for a bathroom break into an unsolveable logic problem. He’s trying to be unlikeable and he succeeds too well, to the point that the sketch is made as intolerable for us as it is for Sandra. It has a few good moments at the diner where the sketch takes on Samuel Beckett-levels of absurdism and the booth becomes a prison Sandra may never leave, but the fact that it ends there leaves the joke sorely lacking a punchline.
Between the extremes of these two, the bumper sticker sketch is pleasantly average Portlandia. With a friend heading off to college Peter and Nance decide their friend’s car needs some character, to be found in a bumper sticker, of which there are many options. It’s a good character joke—knowing what we know about Peter it makes 100 percent sense that he’d have a box of stickers going back years that he never found the confidence to put on anything—and the variety of the stickers leads to a sequence of moderately amusing reactions from all parties. The punchline of every sticker winding up on the back of the car is an easy one to make, but the time spent getting there isn’t time badly spent. It could have used more Greta Gerwig, but that’s a blanket statement that could be applied to the entire episode. (And if we’re being honest, most of life in general.)
- This Week In Portland: If you want to get to Seattle from Portland easily and don’t have a car, BoltBus is a better choice than rideshares from a stranger. Reasonable prices, multiple trips per day, no risk of lemonade-related delays.
- I was confused about the title Mermaid Springa, but evidently the word is Swedish for either running or vagina. Both of which make sense in context of the film.
- Various sexual identities explored in the Coming Out Day sketch: hetero-plausible (not really straight but telling your parents you are), homo-nextual (ready to break up with a significant other to date the same gender), homo-logical (should be gay but isn’t), homo-spectacle (kiss girls to get the attention of men) hobo-sexual (into hobos), and hobo.
- Best joke in the episode: Toni and Candace teaching Gerwig the importance of pacing the phrase “my terms,” Armisen’s unblinking stare and the way Brownstein and Gerwig patiently count along delivering the most enthusiastic laughs.
- “I’m like a stay-at-home dad but without a kid so I’m actually a stay-at-home guy.”
- “Toast is the only food that’s lasted through history as dependable.” “What about rice?” “That’s the thing! Rice came in second.”
- “I went to that department store and I lit that whole bra section on fire.” “That sounds like you’re an arsonist.” “That’s just what the cops said!”
- “The Wizard Of Oz. What the hell was going on in that movie?”