"Baseball" S1 / E6
- B- Community Grade
I mentioned in last week's review that the season finale is, thankfully, superior to "Blunderbuss." Upon re-watching "Baseball," I still stand by that assertion—but just barely. Maybe it was seeing the season's nadir and a passable episode back to back on the screener that caused me to initially overrate "Baseball," but I'll just say that my confidence in the show's future has been somewhat shaken by the recent spate of sputtering, aimless sketches that feel like outlines awaiting improv magic that never arrives.
The concept for "100 percent employment" probably looked great on paper, and it's gratifying to see that even though Portlandians are living in God's country, they're just as susceptible to economic woes as the rest of us. Still, the execution isn't quite there, and when a joke does score laughs—like when the courier gets tricked into saying 'sentence'—those laughs are more of the smile-cracking than gut-busting variety. It's my beef with pretty much every sketch tonight: There are light laugh lines sprinkled throughout the show, and there's nothing so dire as the soft-focus pony interludes of yesterweek, but there's little here to get you excited about another season of the stuff.
That has a lot to do with the episode's through-line, which is our third Kyle MacLachlan storyline and easily the weakest of the bunch. Trouble starts when the mayor assigns Fred and Carrie the task of forming the "Portland Thinkers"—a nonstarter of a baseball team comprised of 5-tool players capable of standing, being male, throwing (with either hand), hitting, and running around. Repetition is the watchword of many Portlandia sketches, some great ("Did You Read?") and some just all right ("You gotta get out of there!"), but the Mayor's teleportation skills and the refrain of "Heather, could I get a bagel," definitely belong to the latter group. For me, the best thing the sketch had going for it was the blackout line, "Could we have some warm water please?"
"Artisan Bulb Maker" is the first semi-strong sketch of the night, and it gets bonus points for giving Carrie (as the chronically sick D'Arbie) something funny to do, even if that thing is produce excess mucus. Her plaintive "are you talking about me right now?" was also really funny—maybe because it's coming from a woman who doesn't mind being totally gross at her place of work but does mind someone discussing that fact. Nick Kroll is always a welcome addition, but I would have loved to have seen him with a juicier role. After all, here's a fast-rising comedian who's a genius at portraying cartoonishly despicable human beings like Fabrice Fabrice, and he's shoved into a dark corner and told to play the straight man.
Next in the show's seemingly endless parade of guest spots is Heather Graham, who arrives just in time to interrupt "Me, Noodle, and Critter were all at Tart. Basket was gonna be there so I wore something sexy," which might just be my favorite line from any of the feminist bookstore sketches, although "Anytime you point I see a penis" is also a contender. What makes the Basket line work so well for me is that, in a break from the show's m.o., the line is delivered by an unphotogenic bit-player who seems barely in on the joke.
Here's where the episode goes off the rails for me: The tryouts for the Portland Thinkers give the impression that Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein arrived at the baseball field with half an idea and were counting on their improv chops to save them—or at least that's the explanation that makes the most sense to me considering Carrie's near-silence and editing choices like the inclusion of that snippet of goofy music—same for the "Dining Guide" sketch that follows. Fred asking the photographer Keith to "invisible me out" and "use a little body" are amusing, but by now, the show's usual lovable shagginess is in serious need of a trim, and a fair sketch about outdoor moviegoing doesn't provide the bump in energy that the episode requires, even if it does give Fred a chance to do his talking-but-not-talking voice from the "Mayor is Missing" episode.
The planning stages of a project are nearly always the most intoxicating, when breathless brainstorming hasn't yet been brought down to reality by more grounded individuals. What happens when you live in the city where everyone has their head in the clouds, though? Besides being a pretty funny bit in an otherwise underwhelming episode, the season's last sketch is also a sobering account of a project doomed to incompleteness: As is so often the case, talking about finishing a project is more fun than actually finishing one, and as the Portland Thinkers begin their transformation into a team of animated sports equipment, Fred's the only one trying to keep on task. He's great at playing befuddled, and there's something heartbreaking about how his cries of "What is this for? What is this? When is this happening?" are gradually drowned out by the waves of unfocused creative energy emanating from Carrie and the mayor, who are now more interested in a cartoon vehicle for Batty Batterson than packing the stands. Frequently uneven, occasionally inspired, the first season of Portlandia never sunk to the level of rote hipster-bashing to win laughs, but it sometimes leaned so hard on the improv crutch that the darn thing nearly snapped in half. Here's hoping the real Armisen and Brownstein can focus up a bit and bring it in season two.