Beach Party, Carrie Brownstein, Fred Armisen (IFC)

I spend a lot of time in these Portlandia reviews talking about the structure of the show, weighing the execution of its ideas and the ways it experiments with the sketch comedy format. All of those are relevant topics of discussion, but sometimes that discussion gets away from the fact that Portlandia is at heart a ridiculously silly show. The city’s mayor gets dragged into scandals over printers and reggae, commerce depends on pickling and birds and every kind of milk, and famous musicians drift in and out of events with the occasional reveal of supernatural powers. Reality doesn’t exactly apply in this show’s universe, and the writing staff is very good at injecting that silliness alongside arcs and character development. “SeaWorld” serves as a welcome reminder of that silliness: it’s the first episode of the season not to be centered around a character or a theme, and it benefits from that looser format.

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Even the runner sketch is in on the relaxed attitude, focusing on some of the city’s most ineptly devoted residents in the brightly dressed activists from season four’s “Ecoterrorists.” Having evidently abandoned their promising career as party entertainers between seasons, the group is looking for their newest cause, going to the old reliable of saving the whales. This was a fun ensemble when it was introduced last year, and they’re similarly enjoyable here with Fred Armisen’s Benji getting worked up over everything (up to and including his rat-tail), Carrie Brownstein’s Dakota and Olivia Wilde’s Brit only partially engaged with what’s happening, and Brandon Huddleston’s Brandon communicating only with shrugs and nods. Wilde in particular is in top comedic form here, not looking for excuses to take her top off this time but clearly missing the point of the conversation: “Whales! They’re the worst.”

The group decides to get their Blackfish-level righteous indignation on with an assault on the mothership of SeaWorld, except the lines between vacation and crusade get blurred early and often. It’s an interesting twist on their first appearance: While “Ecoterrorists” played around with the idea that the group’s terrible protest success was because their talents were being misdirected, “SeaWorld” suggests that they’re failing at what they do because they’re distracted and not all that committed to what they do. Plans to save the whales keep getting shelved because of all the awesome things there are to do in San Diego, be it fish tacos and margaritas, getting some sun on a jet ski, or taking tennis lessons from Jeff Goldblum. (The latter of which is an Internet series I didn’t know I needed until this episode.) It undercuts their zeal but does so gently, which is the right call.

Things aren’t much more productive for them once they finally get to the park. They’re expertly deflected by the ticketseller—a highly amusing guest turn by Orange Is The New Black’s Natasha Lyonne—as Portlandia gets its pun knives out, offering such options as Find Your Porpoise and The Orcasmic Experience. (“Get wet checking out the world’s largest and most majestic mammals!” Benji can’t believe they market this to children.) Yet despite subverting their original intentions, Portlandia sketches rarely leave their characters on a sour note, and they manage to pull out a win by—eventually—releasing one of the theme park’s bait back into the wild. And then a beach party, because why not?

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The other sketches turn out similar degrees of silliness, with the best of them featuring the ever-welcome return of Kyle MacLachlan’s Mayor of Portland. Once again striving to help the city, he recruits Fred and Carrie to develop a “conspiracy video.” It starts out ridiculous with the Mayor peering from behind a concrete wall and only becomes moreso between his fascination with oval lighting effects and Carrie’s idea of perpetuating the myth of immortality. None of it makes any sense, but it works because of the easy chemistry between Armisen, Brownstein, and MacLachlan, as well as the spooky X-Files style of music playing as the idea evolves/devolves into winking art postcard. The conspiracy theme carries through to the airport preparedness sketch, which transforms picking someone up at the airport into an operation worthy of a Robert Ludlum novel. “You cannot overestimate the amount of time it will take to get through these cars,” is delivered in as solemn a tone as letting someone know how little time they have until a bomb goes off.

Portlandia’s mercantile side also makes a welcome return this episode with two commercials for new offbeat businesses. Perennial favorites Bryce and Lisa are back with this season’s latest bad idea, now moving into putting a dead bird on it with Dead Pets, “something for the taxidermy lover of all ages.” They’re competing for ad space with the owners of Shocking Art Supplies, who—aided by none other than artist and Barack Obama “Hope” poster designer Shepard Fairey—make their commercial into a demonstration of just how “groundbreaking” art can be. (“Pre-smashed TVs! You can pile up a whole stack of them and run static through it.”) Both of these ads are the show operating in its reliable gear, offering goods and services that are just on the cusp of being too weird or pointless to buy.

Finally, “SeaWorld” has the opportunity to introduce some new characters with the first appearance of Vince and Jacqueline, as Armisen and Brownstein don impressive levels of makeup and black to portray a goth couple. As with the conspiracy video sketch, this one succeeds largely because of the chemistry between the two leads, going back and forth with a list of ridiculous items that the two want to leave to each other in their wills: a collection of wax faces encased in glass, a player piano from a haunted stagecoach, tears from a Scottish deer hound. With the show doubling down on its established pairings it’s a little surprising to see a new set of faces, but the high laugh ratio of their jokes makes them a welcome addition to the hot streak Portlandia’s enjoying this year.

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Stray observations:

  • This Week In Portland: Despite the sketch depicting Portland’s airport as a location requiring clockwork precision, it is in fact one of the nicer and more efficient airports I’ve ever gone through (as well as the only airport in the world whose carpet has a devoted fanbase). Also, the location of Dead Pets at the corner of Mississippi and Skidmore place it in prime territory, right across the street from an excellent German beer bar and a solid food cart pod.
  • Although this is Kyle MacLachlan’s first Portlandia appearance since he announced his participation in the new Twin Peaks, it disappointingly does not validate my theory that the Mayor is in fact Dale Cooper, escaped from the Black Lodge without his memories and carrying only his love of the Pacific Northwest.
  • Fred apparently gets all of Carrie’s guitars in her will. I’m not sure if this Carrie has the same musical tastes as the real Carrie Brownstein, but if so that’s got to be one hell of an inheritance.
  • “Are you an art student? You’re not answering because you’re an art student, you just want to keep quiet and sulk.”
  • “You get a 20 percent discount if you’re hunched over and you’ve got an army jacket.”
  • “There’s, like, a video from Napoleon’s time, and you look past the horse, and there’s a little oval, and then you’re like ‘Is that the Mayor?’”
  • “He died wearing this hat.”
  • “There should be some shrieks in the distance.” “Who’s shrieking?” “Who isn’t shrieking?”

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