“Feminist Bookstore 10th Anniversary” S2 / E8
- B Community Grade
Wonder of wonders, Candace and Toni somehow managed to keep their business afloat for a decade, despite systematically alienating their clientele, browbeating their interns, and vilifying their Steve Buscemis. Forced to live out the rest of their days as Portlandia characters, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein have said that they'd immediately go for the proprietors of Women & Women First, and I don't blame them. The show has made good use of these ineffectual fusspots, and with so many episodes to their credit, they're far and away the most developed of the town's citizens.
As I've expressed in these recaps before, I'm a little tired of the duo, so I wasn't expecting much from "Feminist Bookstore 10th Anniversary." Boy (apologies to Candace and Toni), was I proven wrong. A misfire or two aside, this episode is a real beaut. It's also the last episode this season I'd recommend, as next week is weak sauce, and the finale ditches the show's small-scale strengths for a more cinematic sweep that doesn't do much for me.
But let's focus on the positive here, because there's a lot to enjoy. The opening sketch about Sanitation Twins Marcus and Madeline reminds me how much I love the way Portlandia uses music: From the barely-there snippets of R&B during "Mixology"'s more romantic scenes, to the hair-splitting over "real roots reggae" in "Mayor is Missing," to the way throughout this season, the soundtrack will just drop out for a few moments to highlight an awkward moment.
And there are plenty to highlight in this prop-heavy, punchy sketch, which sees the twins pitching their obsessively specific trash-sorting system, wherein lotion goes in chartreuse containers, lotion bottles in green ones. And, like the best commercial-y Portlandia sketches, the pair lose the thread every six seconds and start to quibble. There's so much to appreciate here and it's all delivered at such a rapid-fire pace that it's easy to miss the excellent little gags—like Madeline tossing out a diamond ring—when there are so many excellent bigger jokes to enjoy, like Marcus being given the business over his worthless nail clippings. To top it off, the Seussian machine that converts recyclables into fresh air, clean water, and good vibes easily qualifies as one of the show's most eye-popping props.
Of the other standalone sketches, Peter and Nance's signage run at Copypilot takes the cake. When the uptight couple wants to show their support for The Portland Timberwolves, they design—and then revise, redesign, and revise again—a brilliant poster featuring multiple sizes of soccer ball and alcohol content warnings for the pregnant fan.
Portlandia mostly avoids catchphrases. One of the few exceptions is Peter, who here returns to his tic-y habit of pursing his lips, upspeaking, and generally annoying everyone around him by repeating the same syllable over and over until the rest of the sentence tumbles out of his mouth in disgust. Sometimes it doesn't feel like there's enough to distinguish the more persnickety Portlanders like Peter and Nance, Kath and Dave, so I welcome markers like this.
If there's a theme to the standalone sketches in this episode it's tedium. Redundancy, bureaucracy, confusion, and boredom are the hallmarks of some of my all-time favorite sketches, from Monty Python's Mattress Sketch to Mr. Show's Pre-Taped Call In Show, and Kath and Dave are usually good for something in that vein. They decide to go on a healthful hike but get so hung up on how many lumens of light they'll need and what grade of GPS to buy that the day's a wash before it begins. Like a lot of Portlandia jokes, there's only a smidgen of commentary and barely any idea here, but the bit succeeds by dint of Armisen and Brownstein's effortless charm. It also has what's probably the best line of the episode in Kath's description of what a 'hat' is: "It's like a circle with a half circle on it."
Unfortunately, this episode's weakest moments arrive back to back with Armisen's tetchy, lawsuit-phobic dance instructor, and old marrieds Michelle and Brendan, who receive a shipment of fresh summer produce that includes an alien life form. The first is so slight I was surprised when the interstitial music started up: Armisen sends allergic dance students out of the room, warns everyone away from Charlie Brown-inspired clothing, and admonishes his students to not sue him. It's weak, but at least it doesn't drag. Michelle and Brendan, on the other hand, figure in one of those Portlandia sketches that enjoys a long, healthy story arc.
This is one of those moments where that charm really comes in handy, since there's not much to buoy up the sketch otherwise. Michelle and Brendan order produce, go to bed, hear mysterious bumps in the night, and launch a fruit(!)less investigation. All along, the prickly Adorian, safe in its fruit disguise, was converting their house into a spaceship. So, aside from some echoes of Super 8, there's not much to justify the length, other than a scene where the couple heave the mysterious object at a tree while yelling non-sequiturs in an effort to prise it open.
Finally, in the wrap-around sketch, Penny Marshall and LaMarcus Aldridge (of the Portland Trailblazers) crash Women & Women First's big to-do, inadvertently bringing out Candace's inner firebug. (It's not much of a firebug. She douses only a single aisle with gasoline.) Marshall stars as Barbara, an old pal of Toni and Candace's who "went on to other things." "Other things" being code for stealing (if it can be called that) Candace's idea to wear sweaters to bed and making a mint off it.
I really enjoy how Barbara brings the psychotic side out of Candace. Normally, she's difficult but peaceable. She drinks soot-flavored tea, is offended by the sight of anything longer than it is wide, and resists change, but with Barbara in the picture she's suddenly threatening to pile all of the books in the store on top of the woman's hair and whip everyone's faces with broken guitar strings. The whole sketch also benefits from the music act, a butch two-piece that provides the perfect accent to jokes, or the guitar equivalent to a record scratch whenever there's trouble.
Eventually, Toni talks her co-owner down and the former friends make nice, but not before Candace shakes the last of the gasoline from the can with the explanation, "I just want to dump out the rest of it so it's not in the canister." Makes sense. Marshall, for her part, enjoys one great moment, although she can't take much of the credit. After agreeing to dub her new product line the 'Candace Bed-Sweater,' she loudly smacks her lips—then we see the same smack from another angle, aaaaaand then we go back for thirds. (Portlandia's the place to be if you love a good editing gag.) Then, Fred Armisen and Penny Marshall make out.
If only the episode—nay, the season—could end that way. The final two episodes aren't the show at its best, so Season Two gets the same sendoff slump as Season One, unfortunately. Wow, I'm turning into a real Negative Nancy here at the end of a mostly glowing recap. Okay, as outlined in Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast And Slow, I'll watch those episodes again, this time with a pencil between my teeth. My mouth will be forced into a grin, and my brain will assume it's supposed to laugh. I'll meet you back here next week to let you know if the experiment was a success, or if I'll be forced to revoke Dr. Kahneman's doctorate and Nobel Prize.