One of the most prevalent criticisms I see leveled at Portlandia in comment sections and social media is the argument that the show’s outlasted its welcome. Due to the highly narrow focus of its subject material, as well as the fact that Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein play 95 percent of the central characters in every sketch, it’s not a stretch to claim that the show’s telling the same jokes over and over to the point that it’s wrung the last drop of humor out of these situations. And season five hasn’t been doing this viewpoint any favors in its back half, as the bursts of creativity obtained from earlier character-centric episodes have petered out and given the impression of a show limping toward the finish line.
“You Can Call Me Al” is an episode of Portlandia that provides more support to this argument, but also one that proves it’s not too late to turn things around. It’s a qualitative yin-yang for the show, with the two runner sketches representing the show at its best and worst. On one hand you have the same characters repeating the same beats and making the same mistakes; and on the other you have new settings and new jokes being told in a way that feels fresh and genuinely funny.
Getting to the good part of the episode first, the biggest argument for Portlandia needing to shake things up comes in the form of some new blood, Armisen’s fellow Saturday Night Live alum Vanessa Bayer. Bayer first appeared on Portlandia in the season four premiere “Sharing Finances” as a bank teller gently urging Doug and Claire not to get a joint account, and once again she’s well used in a reactive mode as a homeowner whose efforts to install an entertainment system are complicated at every turn. One of the biggest gripes about the back half of this season is the way that it’s brought in some very talented people—Parker Posey, Greta Gerwig, Anna Gunn—and at most gets one scene out of each of them. Bayer by contrast is the central figure of the sketch, and it’s to the show’s benefit as it produces new reactions beyond the usual outbursts. She thinks she’s dealing with crazy situations and crazy people, and its a refreshing degree of awareness.
The move to relegate Armisen and Brownstein to supporting roles also pushes them to create new characters, which produces similar payoffs. In the first part of the sketch, they’re employees of Speakers of the House, setting up Bayer’s entertainment system with the aplomb of every cable guy who seems to know they’re doing despite homeowner trepidations (“Why are you stapling my table?” “It’s just temporary”); and in the second they’re the employees from hell at a post office that’s taken some cues from the Night Vale branch of USPS. The first succeeds because it allows Portlandia’s two leads to play crazy when one usually needs to be the other’s straight man, and the second because it’s another opportunity for the show to prove it’s surprisingly good at being a horror movie when it wants to.
The two parts of the story dovetail together nicely in the third act, when the malfunctioning system transforms Bayer’s apartment into something out of Poltergeist and the post office employees materialize outside of her front door, only for everything to be saved when the Speakers finally return to put everything in order. She’s so grateful for their assistance she declares she needs full 24-hour service, creating a strange family unit in the final scene. It’s satisfying not only in a comedic way but a narrative one, feeling like an absurd short story that’s drawn to a close.
On the other hand, there’s Dave and Kath, who are at their unreasonable ultra-competitive height here thanks to the music (and presence) of Paul Simon. In my review of “The Fiancée” I talked about how my feelings towards Nina and Lance have softened as the show’s gone on, and unfortunately when it comes to Dave and Kath those feelings have gone in the opposite direction. The opening sketch where they pour all their efforts into figuring out a question to ask Simon is painfully awkward as they exhibit total disregard for everyone in the audience, and the way that they decide to usurp their friend’s karaoke birthday party into being a party for their own performance goes past tone-deafness and into unfunny selfishness. There’s a lyric in the Simon song that gives the episode its title “You know I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore,” and that unfortunately applies in this circumstance.
Their preparation for the karaoke competition is more palatable, though again that’s due to the presence of an outsider. Jeff Goldblum is always fun when he appears on Portlandia, and this time is no exception despite his vocal coaching practice being more run-of-the-mill than his previous exploits selling knots and sofas. Once again, the pair is so bad at singing it’s cringe-worthy, though by moving it into the time-honored format of the training montage it keeps things moving at a decent pace. And as insufferable as Dave can be in general, there’s something about his childlike desire to get a certificate for doing a good job that manages to pull him up from the floor.
As for the party itself, it’s a mixed bag. The twist that Dave and Kath’s carefully prepared song is swept out from under them—by the swinger couple of “House For Sale” no less—is an expected twist, albeit one that provides rewarding schadenfreude for seeing the two have to fumble for something else. Yet as stirring as the episode tries to make Dave’s panicked selection of “America The Beautiful,” it’s a choice that lacks the emotional punch or resolution that comes with the home entertainment sketch. It’s nice to see Dave and Kath patch up their differences and reaffirm their love for each other, but there needed to be more of said differences for things to come to life.
Tucked between the two runner sketches is a standalone sketch where an Armisen character takes issue with the fact that he’s being asked to answer the door while he’s working from home, leading him to call a meeting of his fellow work-from-homers. (No relationship to the Ancient Mystic Society of No Homers.) It’s a spiritual successor to season three’s Barista Manifesto, wherein a group of like-minded individuals decide they need to spell out the rules for their specific corner of the world, and it works on a similar wavelength. The self-important declarations (“I know it sounds crazy, but a five-hour workday”) are undercut by the cable guy repeatedly moving in and out of the room, underlining the need for some measure of control in this relatively cushy setup. It’s Portlandia doing what it dos well between the highs of the speaker horrors and lows of karaoke prep, and all goes together to make “You Can Call Me Al” a steady bridge to next week’s finale.
- This Week In Portland: I can’t identify the exact location where Dave and Kath perform, but Portland does have a thriving karaoke scene, ranging from the private rooms of Voicebox to the stripperoke (it’s exactly what it sounds like) of Devil’s Point. My personal pick: Joe’s Cellar, where the Captain runs the stage and I spent many Sunday nights belting out Warren Zevon in the first few years I lived in town.
- We also get a return to the Creative Jungle Digital Playground from “The Fiancée” in a brief “virtual classroom” that’s mostly a confusing tonal shift in context to the rest of the episode. Though there are some good microphone moments: “Don’t worry about this. This hangs, you’re fine.”
- Simon’s barely in the episode, but is game to play along as he deals with what’s certainly the umpteenth stuttering microphone hog fan he’s experienced. “It might be time to move on to other kinds of questioners… For the sake of expediency I’m going to agree.” (On that note, missed opportunity for him to sing the karaoke and have no one comment on it.)
- Fun visual callback: Dave is drinking Rah Milque from this season’s “Healthcare.” Either he stockpiled some before the cops shut Brendan and Michelle down or they’re continuing to run an underground milking operation.
- In a show that’s created legions of fake businesses, Speakers of the House might be the best business name they’ve ever come up with.
- “A karaoke party is an unspoken competition! You don’t go in there like an amateur vocalist.”
- “How exciting that you’re gonna have something that works in a couple of days!”
- “MY HOME IS MY OFFICE! TO INTERRUPT IS LAWLESS!”
- “Your sister has a shoe speaker?”