The unofficial city slogan of “Keep Portland Weird” has always run deeply through the veins of Portlandia, going far beyond simply featuring a mural of the phrase in the opening titles. One of the show’s greatest charms is that it’s never afraid to move into deeply surreal territory, a move that can more often than not manages to save weaker sketches by taking them in a completely unexpected direction and earning laughs based on randomness. “Squiggleman” is an episode of Portlandia that dives freely into this well, but it’s also one that demonstrates how the decision can leave some episodes of the show feeling atonal when other sketches fail to do the same.
This week’s narrative sketch sees the return of hyper-concerned parents Brendan and Michelle from “Cops Redesign,” back to rail once again against the poor quality of music available in the school library. After a contentious PTA meeting, they form a bond with another couple who share the hipster belief that their favorite music is best for everyone, even those six and under. (“Who’s to say a kid can’t appreciate a guitar solo in a Dinosaur Jr. song?” “If you’re going to have some repetition, let’s have Phillip Glass!”) The foursome decide to start a band—as you do—and play their own kind of kids music under the heading Defiance of Anthropomorphic Sea Mammals. Unfortunately, despite popular opinion children do not appreciate time changes and weird chord structure, and their debut is met by some wonderfully stunned faces and fading grins as Carrie Brownstein screams out “Everyone leaves me!”
Far better at getting through to the kids is the main act, Squiggleman, played by British actor/musician Matt Berry (familiar as The IT Crowd’s Douglas Reynholm). In a welcome reversal of the season’s trend of squandering its musical cameos, Berry puts on an entertaining show, his lyrics about fuzzy bunnies and dump trucks taking on psychedelic overtones reminiscent of the Kinks or Small Faces. Even Brendan and Michelle are caught up in the act, following him to his hotel room to ask what his secret is, and he reveals that it’s all about thinking like a nine-year-old at every minute. It’s joyful to see Armisen and Brownstein let themselves go, and act childish for a few moments—and then sulk once Squiggleman yells that them for jumping on the bed.
This closes the sketch off wonderfully, as DASM transforms itself into one of those groups that makes you wonder what in blazes is going on in the minds of people who program children’s TV, a bit about “Imaginary Lunchtime.” And bringing things full circle, the video is reviewed by Pitchfork Kids!, who deem it to “transcend children’s music on every single level.” No matter how deep the rabbit hole in Portlandia, it always leads to self-importance.
I'm of two minds on the opening sketch, a PSA paid for by the Portland Nerd Council, in which “actual nerd” Brian takes a stance on the misuse of the term by those who don’t wear glasses because they need them, or those who tan without weekend “eventing.” (True fact: “A sexy girl who saw a second-week screening of The Avengers is not a nerd.”) While it could be interpreted as a dig against the seriousness with which some self-proclaimed nerds treat themselves, it’s presented unusually straight in comparison to the show’s sense of humor, and Brian’s portrayal has a quiet dignity about it that comes across as respectful rather than satirical. If the former, it’s a joke that’s not built right; but if the latter, this could be Portlandia’s effort to make a statement for a more nuanced perspective on nerds (a topic our own Noel Murray wrote a terrific piece on earlier this week). I’ll reserve judgment until I see if this is the opening salvo for the Portland Nerd Council to mesh with the show’s universe.
But if that sketch is ambiguous in its humor, this is later balanced out by one of the most sophomoric sketches in Portlandia history as Malcolm and Kris visit a new vegan cafe in the Pearl District. What looks like a revisit of the pilot episode’s search for the full pedigree of a chicken dinner turns into an exploration of its after-effects, as the couple’s pretentious conversation is punctuated by constant farting. (Which they, of course, feel the need to announce before or after it happens.) It’s an almost perfect fusion of high and low comedy, as you’re watching these people on a literal “fart patio” and discussing it with the exact opposite of shame for being there.
On the other side of town, Carrie deals with the fallout of a one-night stand with Trey, who she evidently picked up for his resemblance to a Scottish soccer player. Not only is Trey one of Portland’s more insufferable residents (“Did you know that all car companies are corporations?… Did you know that I opened for Sublime?”) he’s incapable of taking a hint, and Carrie’s politeness turns what should be a walk of shame into a road trip adventure. Frankly, I would have preferred this to a runner sketch, as Brownstein plays building frustration so well, and Trey makes an excellent foil as he takes her to no fewer than three locations and even rematerializes in the car after she tries to drive off.
Where the sketch earns its bonus points is in the ending, as Carrie finally makes it to the DMV, and a kindly employee offers her coffee as it segues into a series of epilogues on her insurance, Trey’s imprisonment and the fact that the DMV hotline is open 24/7 if you or a loved one need to renew a drivers’ license (always), and closes on a book titled DMV Fairy Tales. Sometimes on Portlandia, things happen that are so random you can’t help but laugh, and this is unquestionably one of those.
Finally, the episode’s most conventional (by comparison) sketch returns to Women and Women First, where Candace and Toni are hosting a comedy night in celebration of the new humor section they’ve added to the store. This is one of those sketches where the concept alone is enough to make me laugh, as the two of them are Portlandia’s most humorless residents and treat most jokes as an affront to their dignity. Candace decides to roast Toni, throwing out insults badly disguised as humor (“I’ve got a really funny joke for you–Toni’s face!”) Toni’s response involves Candace’s purse and a croquet mallet, channeling her inner Gallagher to the tune of light circus music as she smashes through lotion, an apple and a vibrator (Candace: “I carry it around because, you never know.”) while yelling “Comedy! Comedy!” I love the idea that these two might despise each other as much as the rest of the world, and their shared contempt is all that keeps the store together. Portlandia’s certainly good when it stays weird, but it works best when sketches like these keep one foot on the ground.
- This week from the Portland Milk Advisory Board: raw cow’s milk has been rejected as pasteurization is mandatory, so the next choice is cashew milk! Royce is more than a little embittered at Louis Pasteur and how much Alicia knows about his achievements.
- Related: I missed this in the early episodes but former Parks and Recreation writer Chelsea Peretti is in the credits as “Milk Board Advisor.”
- Best line of the episode: “If you do need to flatulate, we have a designated area.”
- Defiance of Anthropomorphic Sea Mammals sounds like a band that plays Decemberists-influenced cover versions of Disney songs.
- Other proposed kids music band names: Gummi Hammer, Dough Riot, Shortstop Sleepover.
- The fact that Fred and Carrie have beds monogrammed on the headboards with “F” and “C” is adorable.
- While Squiggleman explains how he can see himself as a nine-year-old and still drink, unanswered is exactly how he rationalizes his initial belief that Brendan and Michelle are prostitutes. This is best left unanswered.
- Pitchfork Kids!: proving you’re never too young for ironic facial hair.