Carrie Brownstein, Fred Armisen (IFC)

Given how good Portlandia’s episodes with a tighter theme have been this season, it makes the disappointments of “House For Sale” all the more disappointing. Two problems drag it down: first of all, despite nominally being about various issues surrounding the city’s real estate market, it still feels like a scattershot collection of stories that don’t tie together in a way that makes them feel narratively satisfying. Second—and more important for a sketch show—it’s not particularly funny, the laughs limited to a few isolated moments of randomness rather than satisfying payoff to a joke. It also fails to comment on the most notable fact about Portland real estate, that Portland’s cost of living has gone up significantly in recent years as a consequence of the city’s increased popularity—though given Portlandia’s role in increasing said popularity that may be a connection they’d prefer not to invite.

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The episode starts off promisingly enough with one of Portlandia’s satirical ads, this one taking on the trend of tiny house living that’s grown prevalent in recent years. As with many of the show’s commercials, it’s keen to point out that a lot of these ideas for more efficient living are better in theory than they are in execution, creating a setting where the closeness makes it loop around into inefficiency. Be it the combination of the bathroom and the office, the fact that a shower stream obscures the view of the TV, or the complete and total inability to access cream, small wonder that at one point a resident screams “I can feel your hot breath on me all the time!” It’s a good commercial, one of the show’s patented underlines of bothersome details that get lost in big ideas.

Here’s where the episode goes to new territory, as for the first time the action centers on a pair not played by either Fred Armisen or Carrie Brownstein. A middle-aged couple (played by Ebbe Rowe Smith and Kristine Levine, last seen as the swinger couple in season two’s “Motorcycle”) decides it’s time to scale down their style of living and they put their house on the market. While Portlandia is a show that could benefit from some variety, neither of the two are as lively as an Armisen/Brownstein pairing, and there’s a muted quality to their scenes that’s lacking in humor. There’s some fitful chuckles in their first attempts, albeit ones largely provided by a more recognizable bit player in Henry Cottrell as a professional lookie-loo asking pointless questions about the property: “Do you think I can do an Air BnB here? What is an Air BnB?”

The sketch does take on some more life when the two decide to hire a realtor named Glynis Brooks, played by Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn. Disappointingly she’s largely a misdirect of a character, introduced as a new age type who takes a moment to “hear” the house, but that idea is thrown out when it turns out that the couple is more unconventional than she is: horse masks, chests full of butt plugs, and a room called the “sanctuary” wipe the smile off her face. Much like Greta Gerwig last week, it’s hard to shake the feeling they could be doing more with Gunn, as she recedes to the background in favor of making the couple more out of control and introducing a staging company to create “the illusion of an ideal lifestyle.”

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Once the remodeling goes through, everyone is lined up to buy the house. First in line are Dave and Kath, who after a manic stint of home improvement decide that they need a second piece of property to work on. Their search for the most reasonable lot takes them to a home for sale—or “4 Sal”—that’s less a construction project and more a guest house on the grounds of Carcosa in True Detective. It’s always fun to see the more uptight residents of Portlandia thrown into situations outside their limited bubble, and watching Dave and Kath talk about fixer-uppers and attracting the interest of the dealer who’s got both of those for sale. Their final order—two ounces of meth, a box of peyote, and a can of crack—makes for some good stammering on both their parts, as does their last-minute dash out of there.

Maybe they should have coughed up the cash for those drugs though, as once they focus on the new couple’s house the energy subsides. The fact that the house is in such good condition throws out the sketch’s earlier idea that they were looking for a fixer-upper, and just turns into the two of them being unreasonable and petty. There’s a good joke about the degradation of handwriting in a computer-centric world here, but it’s not enough to keep the sketch on track or provide any new gears for the characters.

Fred and Carrie have a more reasonable need to seek new living, as their landlord Milton has decided to move into the house he’s renting them after a bad breakup. Steve Buscemi (who also directed this episode, in a rare departure from having Jonathan Krisel behind the camera) always has an air of Gil from The Simpsons when he shows up in Portlandia—see last year’s epic “Celery” for the best example—but his portrayal of Milt here goes from tragicomic to simply tragic, as he mopes his way through his current state of affairs and decides to increase their rent in order to afford plastic surgery. The character feels like he would have benefitted from more definition as a recurring player in prior Fred/Carrie sketches (typically ones that have the best sense of continuity and relationships between them), whereas here he’s only involved as a catalyst to get them to move out.

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However, the desire to locate a new house does lead to the episode’s best joke when they manage to win the house, Glynis makes a mention of escrow, and suddenly Fred and Carrie are paralyzed by the mention of such a grown-up word. They pick up an old VHS tape to explain it, and from the first line—“What is escrow? To explain that we have to go back to the beginning of time”—it turns into an experimental film of glorious random. Egyptian gods of waiting 30 days, Dante’s Inferno, a native South American tribe, all of it is tied up in a seemingly basic financial term. It approaches levels of Ring-like horror before a separate level of horror frees them from their prison: Milt, now sporting the worst spray-on tan and work courtesy of his “amateur dental surgeon” girlfriend.

As fits the basic structure of “House For Sale,” the episode sputters to a conclusion: Fred backs out of his bid by gently pushing Carrie under the bus, Glynis loses another reason to live, the couple gets to play another round of Spineroo to pick their favorite letter, and the house goes to Dave and Kath so its former residents can take their shenanigans to a smaller venue. The whole episode was building to a tiny house sex joke, which after all the disjointed buildup, ends with a whimper instead of a bang. (Hopefully the couple’s own ending was the reverse.)

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Stray observations:

  • This Week In Portland: The microhouse community is represented by Caravan, the Tiny House Hotel, located off of Northeast Alberta. There’s also plenty of locations who facilitate construction of your own microhouse, such as PADtinyhouses and Tumbleweed Houses, and even a Tiny House conference in town this April.
  • This Week In Portland 2: Fred and Carrie show great taste by having Secret Aardvark with breakfast, the best local hot sauce you can get.
  • Having Anna Gunn in the same episode as a drug den made me wish for a Badger or Skinny Pete cameo.
  • I’ve been in houses that have everything the staging company brings in. “Typewriter—this says I’m a writer but I don’t use a computer.” “Just random piles of wood for no reason.” “This vodka is handmade in an airplane hangar.” “Antlers, antlers, antlers, I can’t say it enough. It says ‘Are we in a hunting lodge?’”
  • “I think if you’re wearing overalls you should be a train conductor or under three.”
  • “This egg is in escrow, though no one can explain precisely why.”

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