When Portlandia was envisioned by Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, it was built on one key idea: Portland isn’t like anywhere else. Depicted as having a mentality that’s set 20 to 120 years in the past depending on your perspective, the residents of Portland live their lives in a haze of self-satisfaction, confident that they do things better and myopic to the idea that there’s another way of life beyond theirs. And one of the show’s charms is the straight-faced way everyone regards the eccentricities of others: Even when characters like Spyke, Toni or Kath cross the boundaries of good taste and come off as crazy people, Portland’s residents move past it as if they’ve seen three odder things that day.
As such, I’ve been wondering if the show was ever going to try bursting the bubble it had built around the city, introducing an outsider to its world and sitting back to see what the reactions are. I’d hoped new resident Alexandra would be an engine for those sketches, but Chloë Sevigny has been mostly wasted since her introduction in “Missionaries,” popping in for a five-second scene here and there and then leaving on a cartoon sound effect. Instead, the role of outsider falls to Roseanne Barr, as “The Temp” decides to see what happens when you place the creator of one of the most brutally honest sitcoms ever into one of the most unreal environments ever put on television. And it’s as funny as expected—it’s just a shame they pull up before that relationship can be explored in more depth.
Following on the heels of the mayor’s departure in “Off The Grid,” Portland turns to a temp agency to replace him, picking up Barr’s character in Phoenix while between gigs between gigs. (“I’ve been doing a lot of water commissioning stuff lately” she gripes over the phone.) Fred and Carrie are conscripted to be her native guides, and things get off to a rocky start once she throws the mayor’s exercise ball chair out the door—taking out poor intern Sam—and decides on day one she’ll be proactive as possible in the hopes of making this into a full-time gig. “Let’s clean up the mess!” she declares. “There is no mess,” Fred quietly mutters.
The native guide sequence is everything I hoped it’d be, as Fred and Carrie ferry her to the various neighborhoods of Portland to show off all the various things the city has to offer. She is, understandably confused by the various things she sees, from the proliferation of bikes instead of cars to the fact that it only takes 20 minutes to get to the airport. Barr plays the outsider role well, moving from bemusement to confusion to annoyance the more she’s shown. (Best observation: “Isn’t that guy a little old to be on a skateboard? He’s like 48 or something.”) And there’s a terrific running gag for the moments when she does manage to find something nice about the city—a boutique with handmade sweaters, a vintage eyeglasses shop, free muffin samples—and Fred gently corrects her “These are for dogs.”
The quirkiness finally boils over for the new mayor, allowing Barr to slip into her more comfortable role of grandstanding as she declares that this shit will not stand: “Cities need to be active and busy, or at least pretend to be!” She lays down the ground rules for how Portland will be run now, an army of suited enforcers sweeping through to confiscate the laptops from coffee shops, paint over the bike lanes, and splash the whole city with urine to give it that distinctive smell. Her practicality becomes twisted into the unreasonable, and it seems to promise that she’ll move from being reasonable into a Big Brother figure. Or at least she would, if Fred didn’t call her pretending to be the temp agency saying that her time had come to an end, and she leaves to pursue other ventures (such as helping The Office end with dignity and selling a new show to NBC.)
It’s a bit of a limp ending to the sketch after the way her manifesto builds up, and especially disappointing that we won’t get to see the long-term impact of these ideas. Based on the comments I’ve gathered that I’m somewhat on an island in my desire for Portlandia to be more narrative as a whole, but the idea of forcing reality into the show’s universe seems rife with opportunity for sketches—Toni and Candace go to war with a chain bookstore, Peter and Nance getting tossed out of a coffee shop while debating the caliber of the beans. Instead, the sketch—and the city—are left at something of an impasse, with the mayoral office now filled by a Fred and Carrie voicemail.
Outside of city politics, life goes on for the rest of Portland’s residents, as Dave and Kath go out to lunch and decide to eat on the patio. Unfortunately, this is during one of the ten-minute stretches that the city enjoys sunlight, and their pale skin can’t handle the brightness. “It’s a penetrating heat,” Kath whines. It’s another variation on the “dining out in Portland” theme the show’s gone to several times, and this variation works because, as with the mayoral sketches, it introduces someone willing to push back on the couple’s unreasonable demands. The waiter seems almost determined to frustrate, pointing out how delicious the salad is right after Dave complains he’s lost his appetite and responding to their request for the “first available” table by seating them right outdoors again. Nothing new, but worth it for the needlessly complicated solution they find and Dave’s reaction to the waiter by saying “You make my life bad!” in Armisen’s wonderful indignant voice.
It’s customers like Dave and Kath that inspire the episode’s best standalone sketch, as the baristas of Portland convene in a shadowy council. Having served coffee to one douchebag customer too many, the council decides to draft the Barista Manifesto, outlawing the sins of the coffee-buying public—no cell phones, no bathroom use before ordering, and no questions. This sketch is rife with the passive hostility that simmers under so many of Portlandia’s residents, with every one of the baristas so tightly wound they interpret the complaints of their peers as personal attacks. (“You know what’s good here? I’ll tell you what’s not good here, you!”) And the resolution—when the manifesto is thwarted by an even higher law, the coffee shop employee codes—nicely deflates the earlier conspiratorial mood.
In an effort to cross all Portland social strata, the episode also stops by the hippie commune, which is jarred by the fact that one of its members, Joaquin, keeps having to take off. (“He’s never had to go anywhere,” one hippie muses. “None of us have,” another concurs.) The eventual reveal that he’s been going to the gym to balance all the sitting around the group does isn’t particularly moving, nor is the decision for the group to join him and take advantage of the referral discount. Unfortunately, this is a sketch that just isn’t weird enough to be noticeable, lacking the Tom Bombadil and harp destruction that distinguished the group’s first appearance in “Motorcycle.”
And there’s even a step lower than that, as the stop-motion rats from “Cops Redesign” return to work themselves into a hissy fit over a sighting of Robert Sullivan’s “Rats” at a bookstore, and its apparent slander towards ratkind. I’ve never quite understood where the idea for these sketches came from as Portland’s not a notoriously verminous town, and neither instance has had jokes that have been remarkable beyond the idea of “hey, what if we had hipster rats?” Still, the conceit does get some amusing moments as the rats decide that they can start making up their own untruths about humans to counter the perceived untruths about rats (“When people turn 30 their arms fall off and they replace them with branches”), and it’s appropriate that their efforts are shelved once they decide to grab a scone. Human or vermin, in Portland quality baked goods trump righteous indignation.
Come to think of it, these sketches prove Portlandia may not need to upset the status quo after all. That still doesn’t mean I wouldn’t appreciate seeing the town thrown into long-term fervor when the Internet vanishes for more than an hour.
- This week in the Portland
MilkAdvisory Board: Alicia is Royce’s boss now, as Royce has accepted a “promotion to a lower position” after the successive failures of zucchini, berry-seed, raw cow, cashew and radish milks. The new mandate of the Board: “Just forget about milk. We will come back to you when we have an alternative.”
- Speaking of the mayor’s intern, I do wonder if Sam Adams will continue to recur in the role now that he’s no longer real mayor of Portland, or if new mayor Charlie Hales will take on the role should the show get a fourth season.
- The opening sketch made me fairly uncomfortable. I understand their intention in trying to put a more humorous spin on enforcing a gay marriage ban, but it’s still using “gay” as a pejorative, and I expect better from Portlandia at this point.
- Given that according to the sign from “Missionaries” dogs comprise almost 13 percent of Portland’s population, it’s unsurprising there’s that many boutiques catering to them. (This is a city that in real life has a dog daycare called Virginia Woof, after all.)
- Barr is unapologetic about her ambitions, looking to her friend Tammy as inspiration. “She was the temp mayor, and then the guy died.”
- Barista bathroom logic: “Of course there’s someone in there taking a huge shit. We make coffee!”
- Dave’s worries are very specific. “Am I going to get a sunburn that is going to be in the shape of my face?”
- New mayoral edict that hit closest to home: Coffee shops for drinking coffee only. “Forget the fake office and sitting there all day on the Internet! It’s a waste of time.”
- “I thought because you were looking in my direction and raising your voice it was about me.”