Portlandia: “3D Printer”
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Portlandia: “3D Printer”

Print a bird on it!

Normally when reviewing episodes of Portlandia, I try to find some sort of broader theme to get the conversation started. I might talk about the central idea or topic that the majority of the episode deals with, isolate a particular guest star that the show uses spectacularly well, or bring up a certain aspect of Portland life that the majority of the episode’s sketches revolve around. From there, it’s an easy process to springboard into the comedic part of the discussion, looking at the individual sketches in that light and seeing how much or how little they contribute to the episode.

I find myself stymied when trying to take that approach with “3D Printer,” partially because the episode lacks any of those uniting elements and partially because (as I explained last week) I’m feeling restless with the direction of the season. “3D Printer” doesn’t do anything to address those concerns and operates at about the same level of humor as last week, an equal mix of randomness and character work that’s hit-and-miss on the laughs. So, rather than reiterate my same complaints (complaints that you seemed to be equally split on in the comments) and try to force a theme where one may not exist, let’s just start carving up the jokes and see what does and doesn’t land.

The runner sketch offers an interesting change to the status quo, opting to challenge the omnipresent cheerfulness of Mayor Kyle MacLachlan. Once again, the Mayor has a grand plan to make the city stand out, announcing the acquisition of a 3D printer that will help Portland not seem so “quaint” next to bigger cities like New York. (In a nice bit of continuity, the announcement takes place on the same esplanade where the Mayor hurled the printer formerly known as Prince into the Willamette River back in “Off The Grid.”) Fred and Carrie are on hand for the ceremony, and the Mayor introduces his best friends to his parents, who drop a truth bomb on the gathering. Turns out that the Mayor’s father—played by Michael Nesmith of the Monkees, the most unexpected musician cameo this season—has been bankrolling his son’s city for years, funding hospital expansions and getting his son the Hawthorne Bridge for his birthday.

The idea that the entire city of Portland may be a “trust fund city” is once again Portlandia successfully stretching real details into absurdity—Portland’s reputation as “a place where young people go to retire” is backed up by a population of trust fund kids able to afford the city’s more casual lifestyle. And once the Mayor’s parents decide he deserves to lose his cash flow, it destroys the city’s economy and pushes him into even deeper fits of obliviousness and childish behavior. This is a good vein for MacLachlan, answering every concern the city council raises with the services of the 3D printer (“We can print a brick! That’s part of a school, right?”) and throwing a temper tantrum whenever the idea of reconciling with his parents comes up.

Since he refuses to even consider reconciliation Fred and Carrie decide to patch things up, using their puppetry skills and a 3D printer-produced Mayor for the most unsettling puppet show since Devil Doll. The terrifying imagery of the mannequin half spouting jovial lines makes for some good laughs, as does Nesmith’s portrayal of the stock deep-pocketed father talking about his other investment opportunities (“Before I started buying up Portland for Mr. Mayor, I started looking at other cities. I spent a lot of time looking at Fresno”) However, the resolution is light on approaching the trust fund city aspect of the sketch, opting to reset to status quo with little pushback from either party. It’s a good sketch, but compared to the last MacLachlan/printer runner sketch, it lacks the emotional connection and subsequent payoff.

Of the standalone sketches, the best installment is Nina and Lance’s story. When the couple’s pet gecko Leon dies it pushes Lance into an unprecedented bout of crying, which Nina fully encourages and steps back from because only one of the couple can cry at a time. The joke of Armisen and Brownstein playing opposite genders now takes on Inception levels of role reversal within role reversal, as this time Lance is the one overwhelmed by his emotions (“Leon used to watch me play cards!”) and Nina’s the one trying to keep it together in the face of this hysterical behavior—in the best part of the sketch, she even goes full-bore mechanic in assembling a bike in hard-rock slow-motion. And the return of equilibrium with the sweetness of their bike ride close extends the positive impression from “Pull Out King” that despite their divergent personalities they remain one of the city’s most functional couples.

Certainly they’re more functional than Armisen’s community college instructor, who enlists his wife as a Ronald McDonald model in a course about uncommercial art. Art is usually a fruitful source of comedy for Portlandia—Unconventional Art was my pick for best sketch of season three—and seeing the professor advocate for shock value over anything even remotely aesthetic produces some good rambling arguments. The art that they generate is unsettling (and art that would be right at home as Bad Art offerings) though the most interesting part of the sketch is the passive-aggressive attitude the professor takes in speaking to the model and how it becomes unclear whether the aggression is directed at her as a personification or as a person.

The opening church sketch leaves a colder impression, largely because the goal of the sketch is unclear. Ed Begley Jr. plays the priest of a Portland church determined to encourage attendance at his church by adopting a more casual attitude, emphasizing that “church is an option” and opting for some new modern twists like swapping out prayer for vision boards. For a show that’s been so resolutely agnostic for its entire run—save the occasional riff on people who take their New New New New Age faith too seriously—Portlandia’s first approach to organized religion is vague about what joke it’s telling. The modifications to church behavior aren’t specific enough to the show’s worldview, and Begley lacks the dedication to this new paradigm that makes so many of the Portlandia projects so amusing to watch progress and implode. And while Fred Armisen’s characters are often overly oblivious, his portrayal of the altar boy here makes the character seem mentally challenged (“Just sort of new subsets about where the whales would go”), an aspect that makes the joke problematic at best.

In a true sign of how disjointed this episode’s sketches are, there’s even one story dealing with the meaning of Christmas. Armisen steps into the beard and boots of none other than Santa Claus, trying to figure out a way to stay relevant in an age where Internet delivery makes every day Christmas and children don’t even think to leave out milk and cookies. (“I don’t need the milk and cookies, I’m fine! It’s the sort of whole ‘things are different now.’”) True, Portlandia’s position early in the year means it doesn’t overlap any noteworthy holidays, but a Christmas sketch in late April feels both out of place—and not in the “this is part of the joke” sense. There’s also no great resolution to the idea of how to fix it, drifting away in a stream of reindeer urine as Rudolph fails to contribute any positive ideas.

Finally, there’s the perfume commercial sketch, an outing which is more grating than it is creative. Maybe it’s because it comes in an episode where Armisen is playing a lot of deliberately annoying characters, but his director J.W. pushes the envelope into aggravating territory, and I didn’t find much humor in either his inability to grasp how he’s not the center of the commercial or even how airports work, Even the twist ending that their reunion winds up being the commercial doesn’t do much for it because the character and his team fail to establish a connection. As far as jokes it’s just kind of there, a statement that unfortunately sums up the bulk of “3D Printer” as an episode.

Stray observations:

  • This Week In Portland: It’s a pleasant surprise to see Portland’s former mayor Sam Adams again—his first appearance since leaving office—back to playing his role as the Mayor’s personal assistant.

  • It’s sad that Portlandia doesn’t overlap the major holidays, because a Portlandia Halloween or Christmas special would be pretty terrific. I’d love to see what costumes Toni and Candace came up with, or how Dave and Kath are wound to new heights by the stress of the season.

  • I do like the fact that the Mayor’s parents also refer to him as “Mr. Mayor.”

  • The claim that there’s bread and cheese at McDonald’s is open for debate, given the composition of most of their menu.

  • “Betsy, can you do a sort of ‘strung out on heroin’ pose?”

  • “You order a spatula, and it comes in a box, and that’s a present.”

  • “If I ever make a lot of money someday, I will buy them a house or maybe a trip.”

  • “I can’t regurgitate this! You regurgitate it for me on the canvas!”

  • Season finale next week! Hopefully they’ve saved up some of the energy missing from the last two weeks and are going for another epic close.   

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