Tonight’s episode of Portlandia is simultaneously helped and hindered by the fact that amongst its guest stars, it can count such luminaries as The Simpsons creator Matt Groening and Sesame Street misanthrope Oscar the Grouch. On one hand, it’s a remarkable sign of Portlandia’s cultural cachet that it can welcome representatives of two of television’s most beloved universes, ones that create the same balance of reality and fantasy that the fictional Portland strives for. On the other, their time in this world is so limited that the episode doesn’t get enough out of either, making you wish that the show had stuck with one and opted to go full Muppet or full Simpson.
The central sketch features Groening returning to his hometown not as a hero (although a judge is quick to recognize him as such), but as someone there to enforce his intellectual properties. Spyke is rolling out a series of bootleg t-shirts that advertise his new character Bart Ska-mpson and the provocative catchphrase “I’m a rude boy!” Unsurprisingly (at least to everyone but Spyke), the similarity between this and another Bart leads to a cease and desist order from Groening, a challenge that the easily confrontational Spyke meets head on. Spyke’s approach to practicing law being on par with Charlie Day, he decides that bellowing constant jargon is the way to go, and it delivers a similar comedic mileage. The best joke in that approach being that the one phrase that can help him, “copyright infringement,” is one he has to stop and look up every time. (Also excellent, his embrace of Spuke’s Law: Be True! The font was better in theory than execution.)
As a guest star, Groening falls into the category of those who don’t share Portlandia’s particular brand of insanity but are there only to react to it. He makes a good straight man to Armisen’s volatility, responding rationally to loud yells accusing him of things that make no sense: “I didn’t invent the smiley face. I invented Bart Simpson.” His funniest moment comes midway through the sketch when he admits the whole reason for the lawsuit is that the quality of the bootleg is so terrible, rather than any qualms about its creation. (Which is entirely true: Groening even told The A.V. Club in 2006 that he’s a collector of unofficial Simpsons merchandise as eclectic as Russian coloring books.) It’s a good twist to make aesthetic criticism rather than plagiarism the central issue, particularly given Spyke’s inability to see the easy solution to his problem.
Unfortunately, once that punchline is delivered, the rest of the sketch peters out. Spyke’s ill-informed haranguing of Groening gets old after a while, and the third-act twist of it being an act of parallel thought as both of them met the real Bart Simpson isn’t particularly funny, despite having Nancy Cartwright’s distinctive tones come out of someone rocking the Bart look well into advanced middle age. There’s just not enough Simpsons meat to the story to justify Groening’s presence, leaving the impression it’s a cameo better saved for an episode where they could get more of the show’s creative or performaing talent together and expand Springfield into Portland the way The Simpsons did a few years ago. (An episode which also featured The A.V. Club, a detail every writer here is contractually obligated to mention every time it comes up.)
The Oscar the Grouch cameo is more fun because of how unexpected it is. Fred is busy sulking because he’s been diagnosed with Early Onset Grumpiness (EOG), which leads him to behave like a crotchety old man and yell about the actions of others. (Dr. Ravich: “You’ll begin saying things like ‘Who are these people.’” Fred: “Who are these people? That’s a real question!”) It’s legitimately heartwarming to see Oscar pop out from the side and advise Fred to embrace his curmudgeonly qualities, a scene that perfectly captures Sesame Street nostalgia in a way that fits into Portlandia’s particular flavor of satire. “You gotta get out there. You gotta find things to complain about! Revel in your grumpiness!” is bad advice that the older show would find a reason to disprove, here it’s presented as a vitally important moral.
Muppet cameo aside, the Fred and Carrie vibe of the sketch is dependable if unremarkable. Fred’s grouchiness runs in parallel to Carrie’s desire to embrace fashion more heavily, a choice that begins with quality denim and heads into purchasing an elaborate hat that Fred can’t help but use as a delivery system for nun jokes. Both are allowed to go their own way—Fred grumbling about skateboarders, Carrie delivering an impassioned defense of her fashion sensibilities to her bemused parents—eventually coming together when they realize music festivals will allow them to combine their respective passions of hating things and buying clothes. It’s not the pair’s deepest interaction, but trades well off the established differences between the two.
The episode’s third sketch disappointingly has no cameos from legendary animators or puppet curmudgeons, although it does boast the always welcome presence of Parker Posey in a truly absurd wig. Posey and Armisen play a pair of ultra-stylish designers brought in to raise the presence of the local dollar store, and discover the face of the campaign on the street in gutter punk Quinn. (“She’s literally screaming the word dollar!”) One quick redneck-fishing expedition later and they’ve pulled her into the world of high fashion, posing with plungers and toilet brushes in alluring ways and spritzing her when she won’t behave at the sushi bar. The juxtaposition of the cheapness and elitism pulls off an effect similar to the Derelicte fashions of Zoolander, and gets a similar comedic payoff out of the gag.
It’s the sensitive side of things however that wins out. Portlandia’s gutter punks aren’t the most resonant characters in the ensemble, but the degree of mournfulness that both Jeffrey and Quinn feel being apart and unable to buy beer together gives the story a particular sincerity. It’s a development that gives the sketch both the episode’s best sight gag—Quinn converting her room service trays into a drum kit—and a great musical moment where the two sing a weary ballad about their separation. “What use is a dollar/my world got smaller… I’d give up all my dollars/for some unfamiliar squalor.” It all leads to a touching reunion on the streets of Portland, reminding us all that a dollar and a beer is no substitute for someone who understands you.
- This Week In Portland: Not a lot of going out in the city this week, which is a shame given how many Portland locations gave Simpsons characters their names. Montgomery Park, Van Houten Avenue, Flanders Street, Lovejoy Street, Quimby St, Terwilliger Boulevard: the list goes on and on.
- IFC announced this week that they’ve renewed Portlandia for two more seasons. Pop the corks on your best artisan farmers market-purchased champagne!
- Great to see Kumail Nanjiani make his first appearance of the season as the denim salesman, bringing his particular blend of tone-deaf rule enforcement and inserting some additional contempt for Fred’s lack of fashion awareness. On helping Fred understand denim: “It’d be like teaching a lizard how to cover a Foo Fighters song.”
- “It’s my ‘I think I’ve made my point’ face.”
- “What are hats? Why would you wear a hat?”
- “Your eyes have gotta say hello, but your face has gotta say goodbye”
- “Rotten to meet ya. Now scram!”
- “Do you have a dollar?” “Actually I have 80 thousand dollars. We can buy beer!”
- “We’re enjoying this, it’s okay.”