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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Portlandia: “Healthcare”

Carrie Brownstein, Bovine Drug Lab, Fred Armisen (IFC)
Carrie Brownstein, Bovine Drug Lab, Fred Armisen (IFC)
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After two weeks of episodes that had a specific character focus, “Healthcare” is an episode of Portlandia that sees the show getting back to basics, and it’s a welcome return. As successful as “The Story Of Toni And Candace” and “The Fiancée” were on character and storytelling levels, individual episodes of the show tend to function best when they draw on the entire Portland universe, moving through the city’s various neighborhoods and getting the full surreal flavor. Even more encouraging, it’s an episode that follows the pattern of Portlandia season finales by tying everything together around one specific event, giving the episode a welcome sense of cohesion.

“Healthcare” changes up the formula from the season finales by being about a central theme rather than a location, and it delivers solid results. Medical comedy usually requires a darker sense of humor than Portlandia’s—certain moments of unintentional comedy in medical-drama press photos aside—and thankfully Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein don’t try to steer in that direction, carefully skirting the serious implications of the matters discussed. Instead, it relies on the reliable format of the characters’ neuroses being more dangerous than their actual ailments, as they nurture even worse ailments and addictions in the name of trying to feel better.


Frequent guest star Ed Begley Jr. is a welcome presence in this episode, still comfortable in a doctor’s coat almost 30 years after St. Elsewhere as he dispenses bad news his patients interpret as wrong or worse than it actually is. Peter’s initial diagnosis of cancer turns out to be one that still gives him at least 40 more years to live, but having more than half his life in front of him translates to his life being over. (So over?) Brendan and Michelle can’t take the suggestion that ailments like being jittery after drinking coffee have rational explanations. Only Candace has a legitimate complaint—her heart is so “corroded” she’s having heart attacks daily —but she rejects any of his assurances on how easily it could be fixed. Begley’s rational demeanor serves him well here, the sane authority figure against whom everyone’s reactions are comedically insane in comparison.

While “Healthcare” may not share the same focus as the character-centric episodes of season five, the understanding of the characters persists, and all of their reactions are totally in keeping with established behaviors. Peter, whose desire to avoid conflict borders on infantile, crosses said border and loses any ability to take care of himself, regressing to a childlike desire to have Nance cater to his every whim. The two are so symbiotic as a couple that the instances where she snaps are often Portlandia’s best moments—see also terrific opening sketch of “Spyke Drives”—and this explosion is even better as it spurs her to gain the same disease.

The sequence of Nance trying to get cancer via every means possible and failing is wonderful, both in its cartoonish pacing and in the methods she tries to obtain it: I need someone to produce a GIF of Brownstein rubbing asbestos all over her face as soon as possible. Her subsequent jaunt to Chernobyl is an extreme as far on the other end of the spectrum as Peter’s hypochondria, and it takes a move of similar extremity—Peter parachuting in with none other than Cobra and Red Sonya star Brigitte Nielsen, who’s entertainingly cheerful in a brief appearance—to bring the couple to their senses. As with all the couple’s adventures, there’s an equal mix of the mundane and the epic, and this sketch forms another comforting chapter in their lives.

On the topic of unhealthy behaviors, after Brendan and Michelle fail to have their general discomfort addressed by either a nutritionist or a herbalist, a solution presents itself in raw cow’s milk. While I thought their first foray into illegal substances “Late In Life Drug Use” was a wasted opportunity, their reaction to the raw milk is a much better use of the two in this situation. In an interesting deviation from the expected, despite every sign that this milk will actually make them deathly ill—given the edict from the Portland Milk Advisory Board that pasteurization is mandatory—it turns out to be every bit the panacea their pusher tells them it will be, and their ingestion of it turns them into borderline speed freaks. (“I took an online class and read Ulysses this morning.” “Everything’s so funny for some reason!” “You’re not blinking anymore.”)


From there, it’s an easy graduation from user to pusher, as the surplus they get out of owning their own cow leaves them determined to spread their product around. Their foray into dealing doesn’t reach Breaking Bad or Dallas Buyers Club scale, but it makes for an amusing riff on the legality of homeopathic remedies as they attempt to get the word out about “Rah Milque,” and gives us a tremendous visual gag once the cops bust them and they take to the streets with a cow in tow. Disappointingly, the sketch ends with them running to safety, opting not to tell us whether or not the two kicked their raw milk habit or retreated to run a secret milk-shine still in the Columbia River Gorge.

Despite the messes both couples find themselves in, they still can’t top Candace in the matter of creating their own problems. This story is the most broadly comic of the three, relying on Candace’s bull-headed refusal to acknowledge her on errors or the need for change. Water aerobics is a disaster once poor Toni gets tangled up in the pool’s filter—a great bit of physical comedy for Brownstein—and despite qualifying for a heart transplant the fact that the donor is male shuts down that possibility immediately. (“We will not put a man’s organ in a woman’s body. That’s unnatural.”) Much of “Healthcare” works because of how it proves the old House axiom that patients are idiots, and Candace’s attitude here certainly puts her in that camp.


The solution to her problem comes when Dr. Ravich realizes he needs to go as crazy as his patients to get results, and goes for alternative treatments. This sequence is the funniest scene of the episode, be it Begley Jr.’s straight delivery of “Thank you all for attending this hastily thrown together medical conference,” or the entirely serious way the audience regards the idea of taking in skunk or octopus hearts. Time will tell if the monkey heart Candace settles on—and her subsequent tendency to groom Toni—will become a part of the Portlandia universe, but it makes for a fun close to an an episode that further cements Portlandia as enjoying a creative upswing in season five.

Stray observations:

  • This Week In Portland: In addition to selling raw milk illegally, Brendan and Michelle almost certainly didn’t file the necessary permits for keeping backyard animals in Multnomah County.
  • Peter’s various stories of Italian cuisine that he shares with with Dr. Ravich gloss over the unfortunate time he became horribly addicted to pasta.
  • Candace yelling at the Girl Scouts in the episode’s opening scene is classic Candace. “Gah, images of females on a box that you’re just selling. You should get a badge for confrontation! … “It’s not cookie time! I’m gonna get those sashes and tie them in a knot.” Also classic Candace, her tendency to whip her boob out in front of Dr. Ravich for dramatic effect. “I fed two children with these! And many lovers.”
  • “It took me three nights to watch one episode of Masters Of Sex. I just kept falling asleep.” I have that exact same problem, Michelle.
  • “How do you know she won’t grow a scrotum with that heart?”
  • “What about pickles, can I have pickles? It might be the cancer talking.”
  • “Let’s eat ravioli and make love over and over again!” “That’s so Danish.”

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