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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Portlandia: “Trail Blazers Dancers”

Illustration for article titled iPortlandia/i: “Trail Blazers Dancers”
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Looking back, it’s surprising that it’s taken Portlandia this long to do an episode focused on the Portland Trail Blazers. While the city is mostly famous for its culture of food, music and general aimlessness, there’s a vibrant community of sports fans in Portland who unite behind the Trail Blazers and the Timbers. Every game day the Moda Center and Providence Park are flooded with people decked out in jerseys and scarves, amped up for the upcoming event and filling the sidewalks for blocks around. (That last statement may contain a little bitterness as I live only a few blocks from the Timbers’ stadium and am less than happy about the amount of fans who clutter my neighborhood after games.) Both teams have a fanbase that’s grown progressively larger and more vocal over the last few years, certainly something that a writing staff fixating on the city would be unable to miss.

Then again, if they’d done sketches about either team any earlier in their run they wouldn’t have the legitimacy they have now as a Peabody Award-winning comedy, and they’d be on the outside looking in. At this point though, they can not only do sketches about the Trail Blazers but also do sketches with participation from team’s starting lineup, owner, and general manager to play along. “Trail Blazers Dancers” steps onto the court, and makes a memorable impression with just how much the team hierarchy is willing to play ball with a show as closely identified with their home city as they are.


The runner sketch involving the team succeeds largely because the show picks the perfect Armisen/Brownstein team to associate with them, the ones most distant from sports or any sort of competitive activity: Toni and Candace. Candace wins two tickets to a game in a silent auction, and both she and Toni find themselves enjoying the game against their best instincts. That is, until the Trail Blazers dancers begin dancing during halftime, which leaves the two mortified. (Toni: “This is a private dance. This is a dance you do in your backyard under the full moon.”) They approach general manager Neil Olshey to protest this sexist approach, and Olshey reacts exactly the way he should as a sane person in Portlandia insanity: smile, nod, pass the buck and offer up a free hat in exchange for never entering his office again.

As I’ve said in prior reviews, Toni and Candace are one of Portlandia’s most reliable comic weapons because at this point they’re so well-defined they require no context: you can just put them in a scenario and they roll with it. That certainly applies to the segment where the two begin coaching the dancers, shooting for empowerment over titillation and structuring the halftime show as performance art. Their well-meaning superiority meshes perfectly with the airhead quality of the dancers, the scene feels nice and open thanks to the camerwork within the basketball court, and the accompanying John Philip Sousa-style marching music makes it easy to get caught up in the attendant silliness.

The third act doesn’t work as well, largely because it takes away the broad physical comedy of the dancing and moves to Toni and Candace excitedly trying to apply their motivational tactics to the Trail Blazers themselves. The team is game, but they’re largely a blank slate against Candace’s excited story about how Michael Jordan took her to dinner once (not the Michael Jordan, but the guy who lived outside Union station and had hair “like a hair of headphones”). True, basketball players aren’t expected to be comedians—Space Jam and Kazaam stand as evidence to that—but their disinterest doesn’t play as well off Armisen and Brownstein as the vapidity of the dancers does. Though it does end with a cry for dunking, which I’ll agree that all basketball games need more of.

Of the standalone sketches, the homemade clothing one has the best execution. As true Portlanders both Malcolm and Kris feel deeply uncomfortable buying clothes where they don’t know every detail of where they come from, so they decide to hire their own personal seamstress. Unfortunately, a demand for product means that the seamstress needs to hire an assistant, and Kris’s demand for her table leads her to push them to the dimly lit basement, and by Saturday the couple has become sweatshop owners in their own right. It’s the sort of sketch where you can see the punchline coming halfway through but the buildup makes up for the lack of surprise, activity escalating to the point where they’re selling clothes to sweatshop-hosting nations and are completely blind to the irony. A solid dig on yuppie hypocrisy, hampered only by the uncomfortably-close-to-racist accent Malcolm has when oral surgery makes him sound like a stereotypical sweatshop owner.


For a more topical sketch, Portlandia turns its attention to the success of Kickstarter with the Can’ts Film Festival. Hosted by Gus Van Sant, the festival honors the films of Kickstarter—not the films made because of Kickstarter, no, but the films made to get people to back Kickstarter campaigns. There’s such classics as the pitch to make a documentary out of Talagnu (“an artist out of Daytona in the 1970s”), Blazers owner Paul Allen trying to muster funds for a uniform change, or eventual winner “Invincible Love” asking solely for plane fare to North Dakota’s oil fields. (My vote personally goes to Sandra, who’s asking for money solely to continue funding other Kickstarter campaigns.) It’s a cutting illustration of how many pointless Kickstarter campaigns exist alongside the success stories, and Van Sant adds an amusing legitimacy to the process: “We can’t do it without your help. And by it, I mean, whatever.”

Speaking of Sandra, while there’s no sketch about the Timbers this episode the sport is represented in the form of a soccer ball tattoo she wants to get rid of. Both that and the scene where Joaquin gets his hair caught in a smoothie blender are largely excuses to let Armisen riff excitedly, but he continues to do that well and there’s plenty of attendant weirdness to liven both sketches up. The tattoo parlor has an odd cackling girl to liven up Lyle’s excited demonstration of terrible removal jobs, while poor Joaquin’s plight can only be solved by the aid of a fireman and a pair of bolt cutters to shear his precious hair—hair which is then blended into the smoothie and served up in gratitude. Certainly can’t be odder than anything Candace drinks.


Stray observations:

  • This Week In Portland: Big week for local celebrities between Van Sant, Blazers management, and the team’s starting lineup. (Also, the Trail Blazers Twitter account handed over coverage of last night’s game to the Portlandia creative team, and the results are good for a chuckle.)
  • Interestingly, no comments from LaMarcus Aldridge about remembering the last time he crossed paths with Toni and Candace.
  • The sketch about Gutter Mutt vs. Condo Shepherd was basically only a canine version of the season’s earlier sketch where Kumail Nanjiani joined the gutter punks, though it did have the most groan-worthy pun of the episode: “I miss my iTunes! Bark to the condo.”
  • Toni’s first impression of going to a Trail Blazers game: “Oh, when you got the tickets I assumed we were going to a lecture about pioneers. People who blaze trails.”
  • “The shorts were so small, I felt like they were growing right out of their asshole.”
  • “Those little hands would be great for buttons!”
  • Damien Lillard: “I’m not a woman. I’m a man.” Candace: “I don’t agree with you. I just don’t.”

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