(For the next several days, some of our writers will be swapping duties on some of our most popular shows. Some of them will like what they see, but for different reasons. Some of them will have vastly different opinions from the regular reviewers. And some of them won’t be all that different. It’s Second Opinions Week at TV Club.)
Your estimable regular Portlandia reviewer has persuasively been making the case that the increased serialization of the show has been a positive, if risky, development. The ads for this week’s episode are appropriately ominous. Sad music strums over scenes of Fred and Carrie in unaccustomed domestic discord before an announcer promises that “this is the episode that changes everything.” Fashioned like the trailer for indie relationship drama of the week, the ad deftly teases the prospect of Fred and Carrie’s relationship, and the show, heading down a similar path: Is this the week Portlandia goes normal?
Well, no-of course not.
Starting out as a largely unrelated series of sketches, the world of Portlandia has gradually been sketched-in so to speak. Characters from the various little worlds in Portland still rarely interact directly with each other, but as the show’s gone on, the comedic map of the city and its singular denizens has begun to broaden, coloring in the city’s themes and relationships and weird little undercurrents and, perhaps inevitably, changing the nature of the show’s comedy. Increasingly, the parade of quick-hit (sometimes hit-or-miss) characters have ceded to extended, near episode-length short stories weaving though the shorter segments, where the creative risks (and potential rewards) are greater: Eccentric little character bits that play out before they lose steam are one thing, but eccentric character bits stretched out over most of an episode need a sure hand at the tiller. And Fred and Carrie, the none-too-far-removed avatars of the real Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein have remained our tour guides through this odd world, their endearingly dogged pursuit of creative ways to improve their beloved city not unlike “our” Fred and Carrie’s persistent efforts on behalf of their weird little show.
So when Fred and Carrie both fall for their carelessly bewitching new roommate Chloe (Sevigny) and find themselves uncharacteristically at odds, the whole foundation of the show, and perhaps its Portland itself, begin to shake. Appropriately enough, it’s Chloe’s guileless appropriation of some of Portlandia’s coolness signposts (Violent Femmes, Siouxsie Sioux, French New Wave film fashion) that draws Fred and Carrie confusedly toward her: She’s the perfectly alluring manic pixie dream girl, except she’s never heard that term before. Chloe’s unwittingly channeling Portlandia’s zeitgeist without really understanding it, and is therefore immune to their incessant cultural evaluation. And Fred and Carrie are inexorably attracted to her heedlessly dippy flame.
At the end of the last episode, Chloe had transformed their love triangle into a wittily visualized pastiche of Jules and Jim, with the three lovers frolicking amidst Godard-ian subtitles and passive-aggressive one-upsmanship from a besotted and competitive Fred and Carrie (“I plan to be in a state of heightened arousal all day.”) Not that Chloe has ever seen Jules and Jim, of course.
The Fred/Carrie plot returns, weaving through a particularly strong series of new and returning sketches, its underlying themes of loyalty, betrayal, and comically obtuse selfishness resonating in most. It's a testament to the show's ability to balance its increasing long-form storytelling ambitions with its sketch comedy roots that the main plot of this episode reinforces, rather than distracts from, the accustomed structure. As this week’s episode begins, Carrie takes Chloe out to the new hip Portland spot, a communal table restaurant. (A typically clever comic idea that only Portlandia’s Portland would think is actually a good idea). Amidst the unintentionally shared water glasses and distracting chatter (according to Carrie, “There are sort of tacit rules about listening”), Chloe explains that she’s chosen Fred instead, since she feels intimidated by how together Carrie is, while “Fred can’t even tie his own shoes- it feels right to me.” It’s a quick turn from last week, but, hey, that’s Chloe. (Sevigny’s peerlessly open facial expressions as she innocently tramples on Carrie’s feelings throughout this episode are hilarious.)
As Carrie decides to move out, Fred’s attempts to make her feel better are typically, and comically, self-involved, blithely bringing in Chloe to try to advise Carrie…on getting over Chloe. (Fred: “She says stuff like that!”) This whole sequence, culminating in Fred running through an ever-less-impressive list of guys for Carrie to date on the rebound, is the highlight of the episode, trucking nimbly in the show’s particular verbal style where characters draw out an insensitive conversation for an inappropriate length of time. Also, this segment, along with several others (like an amusing Stand And Deliver pastiche), mines solid laughs by cutting off musical cues abruptly once someone points out a fact that punctures the speaker’s self-satisfied momentum. After she’s heard enough, Carrie’s out the door, leaving Fred and Chloe to, no doubt, canoodle while pretending they don’t understand why Carrie’s so upset.
Well, at least Fred’s pretending.
- Apart from the main story threading through the episode, almost all of the one-off sketches hit for me. The Milk Advisory Board interstitials continue to deliver. This week-water milk! Carrie: “It’s water-just drink more water.” Also, Fred’s new girlfriend is a little like Frankenstein. “Frankenstein’s kind of cute…when he’s a girl!”
- In the pre-credits sequence the new parent characters run through book after book trying to find equilibrium between their pre-kid lifestyle and parental responsibility, finally settling on the hilarious decision to treat their toddler as an equal. “Do you want us to baby-proof everything, or are you good? You know, just don’t fall out the window, or pull things down on you.”
- The rats are back. I like ‘em- there’s a decidedly Wes Anderson verbal vibe to their improv-y interplay, but Armisen, Brownstein, and producer John Levenstein have created a trio of improbably affecting, deadpan little critters. Levenstein’s third-wheel interviewing potential new roommates (including a bow-tied, bespectacled slacker owl)- “I’m not necessarily against the idea of roommate relationships” gets most of the good lines this time.
- The rats are a warmer parallel of the human Carrie/Fred storyline. Just as self-involved, but at least they don’t leave a man behind.
- Fred’s best recommendation for Carrie’s potential new boyfriend: “The one with the wife, but he’s already complaining about her.”
- The stand-alone mega-cinema with the improbable number of escalators isn’t as recognizable a comic target, but hats off to this exchange: Usher- “You should really get here 30 minutes ahead of time.” Carrie- “We’re not going on a plane.” Usher- “It’s a documentary. It’s similar.”
- On a personal note as a citizen of the other (original) Portland: There are two Portlands, we were here first, and the Maine version has enough vintage stores, zombie kickball leagues, and mustache-centric film festivals to warrant its own quirky comedy series, I’ll have you know.
- Thanks to Les for loaning me the keys. He’ll be back next week for an episode that looks to resolve all these hanging serial storylines…in what looks like a Portland-ocalypse! (Maybe Fred and Carrie’s plot really has shaken the city to its foundations…)