Portlandia limped across the finish line at the end of last season with a pair of weaker episodes ("Baseball" and "Blunderbuss"), and I was worried that Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein might be running out of ways to skewer the clueless and/or cool. Having seen the first three episodes of season two, I'm still a mite skeptical about the show's ability to deliver the goods consistently, but as long as we get a "Mixology" every few episodes I'll be happy. There are great supporting turns by Andy Samberg and Kumail Nanjiani, markedly better sketch endings, zippier audio cues, and a general sense that director Jonathan Krisel and company have figured out exactly what this show is and what it does well. So "Mixology" should make a good introduction to Portlandia newbies, despite the fact that the third main character—Portland itself—is almost entirely absent from the wrap-around plot.
But first, the triumphant return of Bryce Shivers and Lisa Eversman of "Put a bird on it!" fame. It's a pleasant surprise that a show as seemingly twee and niche as Portlandia could become IFC's highest rated program. Surprising too that "Put a bird on it!" would strike such a cord and become the flagship sketch. "We can pickle that!" delivers a similarly satisfying arc of cheeriness curdling into disgust, as everything from unused jewel cases to dropped ice-cream cones takes a briny bath. The quick cuts and cartoonish sound effects have been amped up for this episode, and I can only hope the show keeps up the pace as the season progresses. As Krisel has pointed out, it rains in Portland, but never in Portlandia, and I think the show excels when it's indulging its inner Sesame Street.
And speaking of Sesame Street, this episode is especially focused on the vaguely defined, Bert & Ernie-esque relationship between Fred and Carrie, and that focus imparts the episode with some unexpected moments of tenderness, especially in its musical finale. Carrie recognizes a mixologist in a Mumford & Sons getup (Andy Samberg) as an old summer-camp buddy right before he delivers her his signature cocktail, an impressive looking concoction that calls for egg shells, cherry tomatoes, and rotten banana. Apparently, that last item was included both because it's a "secret of the pros," and also because the bar "just needed to get rid of it." A sucker for a funny list, I loved the rundown of what made it into that (apparently delicious) ginger-based bourbon drink, but even better was the strained cordiality between Fred and Andy the self-satisfied bartender. Carrie is the only thing connecting them, but social rules being what they are, they have to feign interest in each other, and the perfunctory dude-speak they launch into is great, sharply observed stuff. Sensing a potential love connection, Carrie decides to make a mix tape for the mixologist, and the main plot kicks off.
Next, Portland's resident sticks-in-the-mud Dave and Cath spend what should be a restful day on the river rehearsing safety routines and shaming the other rafters for drinking. It's not the strongest sketch of the episode but it's no weak sauce either, and with its closing message-in-a-bottle gag it demonstrates the show's newfound ability to gracefully close out a bit. It's followed by the slowest stretch in "Mixology," where Carrie and Fred leave the promised land to slog through SoCal in search of Samberg. He's inexplicably skipped town to work at The Windjammer, prompting a confused "Who moves out of Portland?" from Carrie.
The second half of the episode offers one solid sketch after another, anchored first by Kumail Nanjiani and then by the feminist bookstore owners. Kumail's still a complexity-loving bureaucratic cog, but he's swapped the phone sales rep gig out for waiting tables. And Candace and Toni have to contend with a toothless AC repairman who, horror of horrors, uses the word 'unit.' Both sketches could potentially drag, but they don't, and I think this episode's especially generous application of cut-aways, sound effects, and snatches of song (like the Feminist Bookstore "theme") is what supplies much of its juice. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Fred Armisen is such a standout straight man when given the opportunity. Favorite moment: When Nanjiani offers to "Lobsterate" Fred's meal, Armisen dolefully replies, "I doubt you do that. I doubt that's even in existence."
Another winner of a sketch follows, where a plucky youth goes door-to-door, trawling for the necessary signatures to get plastic bags banned. When the homeowner is reluctant to give him her Jane Hancock, he enlists his parents, then his grandparents. For me, this sketch is just a delivery system for Armisen's weird "just between you and me" speech about "literature just being one of those things." Portlandia gets credit for lampooning trends and types that other shows don't touch, but it also excels at homing in on ridiculous conversational tics—like the bro-speak in the bar—that might otherwise go uncommented on.
Finally, when Carrie discovers that the SoCal-ified mixologist is now "just a bartender," she's forced to call upon their shared summer-camp memories to snap him out of it. The episode ends with a stirring musical number, and I'm left feeling fairly optimistic about the upcoming season. From what I've read, this is a show that really comes together not in the writer's room, but at the editing bay, and "Mixology" gives every indication that the creators have learned a lot from the flubs of the first season.
CORRECTION: I've been informed that editor-cum-DJ Doug Lussenhop is indeed working on this season of Portlandia. When this recap was first posted I noted (erroneously, as it turns out) that it didn't appear he was returning. I regret my mistake, but I'm excited to see Lussenhop's signature blend of the horrifying and the hilarious in the coming months.
- Bill Oakley (The Simpsons) and Karey Dornetto (South Park) are joining the writing staff, so it will be interesting to see if Portlandia's sensibility changes noticeably.