I’ve made no secret in these reviews that I support Portlandia’s efforts to embrace a more serialized approach, but now that we’re more than halfway through the season, a problem with that tactic has become apparent: a drought of truly memorable sketches. While ongoing arcs about Peter and Nance’s bed and breakfast or the state of the mayor’s office are interesting to watch, the focus on building them has been, in retrospect, somewhat diluting the brand. I went back over the last few weeks of sketches in my head and realized that the most memorable ones this season have been “Spoiler Alert,” which was all the way back in the season première; and the Portland Nerd Council PSA, chiefly because at the time I had no idea how sincere it was and spent most of the time asking questions. (The Portland Milk Advisory Board has probably been the best part of the season, but that’s more of a recurring gag than it is an actual sketch.)
This trend seems disturbing, especially given that historically Portlandia tends to lose some of its energy as it heads toward the end of the season. “Alexandra” manages to right the ship however, by demonstrating that the show is in fact capable of balancing standalone sketches with a more fleshed-out narrative sketch. And even more encouragingly, it can keep both equally entertaining.
Entertaining is certainly the main word I have for the opening art project sketch, which represents Portlandia firing on cylinders. Structurally, it’s reminiscent of the “DJ Night” sketch from last season, but it manages to go deeper because it also taps into the show’s fascination with Portland residents taking their ideas so seriously that they disappear up their own ass. It starts out relatively low-key, with Carrie visiting an art gallery and witnessing an artist who’s standing in for her own art piece as “Onlooker” (Mixed medium: human, wine glass, voice). Then as the best sketches do, it gradually escalates in mania as it turns out more and more people are letting their art projects spill out into the real world, from a fake officer directing traffic (“Stop And Go!”) to a purse snatcher asking how we perceive theft (“Mediations On Property”).
Soon Fred and Carrie are trapped in projects beyond their control—at one point Fred’s on a treadmill fleeing from albino versions of Green Man from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia—until the two finally are able to reunite and talk about the important things like which coffee shop to go to. And then the camera spins out St. Elsewhere-style and we discover that the rabbit hole goes even further, Portland itself is nothing but a 1851 mixed-media art project, courtesy of “conceptual artists Asa Lovejoy and Francis W. Pettygrove.” It’s epic in scale in a way this season has yet to reach, and it’s an easy contender for best sketch of the season.
A similarly bananas sketch comes from an unexpected source. Type A couple Dave and Kath are starting to feel overused this season, and the latest offering where the two get worked up about coyotes roaming through their neighborhood feels like the latest installment in them being so tone-deaf about a problem they miss the obvious solution. That is until Dave nods off and enters a white dreamscape, where the coyote transforms into a Native American shaman Dave tries to have an adult conversation with. (“And why do you have to kill cats and dogs?” “Because we’re hungry! You can go to restaurants, we can’t go to restaurants.”) There’s a lot of different shades of reality in Portlandia, and it’s effective when it moves its straight-laced characters into a more surreal territory. And the closing shot of the two tearing a dead animal to pieces in their puppy pajamas is a season highlight—so goofily over the top, and even better when we consider the last time we saw them they were complaining about sitting outside.
The other standalone sketches feel like versions of concepts the show’s addressed before, but still prove that the ideas—and Armisen and Brownstein’s delivery of those ideas—remain fertile ground for comedy. The sketch involving the employees of Cinetopia revisits the fixation on Portland’s foodie culture, but proves that the two rattling off impractically exotic dishes remains a reliable source of comedy. (“The newspaper really infuses the food with the grittiness of paper.”) Similarly, the examination of the punk-rock house that’s now on the historical registry lets Brownstein play the role of passive scholar while Armisen gets to play image-obsessed aggressive asshole, both roles they’re ideally suited for.
Most promisingly, these sketches prove that the show may still be able to balance serialization and standalone better than expected. The narrative sketch is not only funny, but it manages to address an ongoing concern I’ve had in that it finally found something to do with Chloë Sevigny’s Alexandra. For someone who’s been in practically every episode this season, Sevigny has felt underutilized, my earlier theory that she’d provide an outsider’s views on Portland undermined by her showing up for only five or ten seconds per episode, often introduced or dismissed with a loopy sound effect. It’s almost felt like she stayed in Portland for a week, they shot all her scenes at once and Jonathan Krisel has been steadily peppering them throughout the Fred and Carrie sketches.
“Alexandra” is, fittingly, the episode that finally gives her some defined personality, and it’s a personality that Fred and Carrie find baffling and frustrating. She’s a “cultural tease,” someone who’ll torture her roommates unknowingly with such terrible music as a rendition of the Violent Femmes’ “Add It Up,” but be utterly ignorant of French New Wave cinema even while she’s dressing like the main character of Breathless. This is a good use of the character, both because Sevigny plays disconnected well and because it puts Fred and Carrie in their comfort zone. While other Armisen/Brownstein couples are designed to demonstrate how crazy people in Portland can be, Fred and Carrie as themselves are the people who treat Portlandia’s universe as totally normal, and who get confused rather than angry when this perspective is challenged. Witness Carrie’s judgment on Alexandra’s outfits: “When someone looks a certain way, I just ascribe all this knowledge to them, like ‘Oh, you must be referencing them on purpose.’”
And more interestingly, Alexandra’s presence in Fred and Carrie’s home adds a new dimension to the relationship between the two, as it turns out she’s been “hanging out” hanging out with both of them (the latter pairing being one I expect about which only gentlemanly things will be said in the comments). The other thing that sets Fred and Carrie apart from other couples is the asexual nature between them, and putting someone between them leads to an interesting dynamic that comes between affectionate and spiteful, that also contains the self-absorption which infects the whole show. “Whimsical people date best friends. I feel adventurous for once,” Fred says thoughtfully.
Thankfully, the episode doesn’t resolve in a messy conflict between the two, something that would fundamentally upset the apple cart. Instead, it flips a switch that we all should have seen coming once Breathless was mentioned, as Alexandra excitedly wakes both Fred and Carrie up to celebrate Bastille Day. What follows is a homage to French New Wave that’s almost Community-esque in its attention to detail, as the three scamper through Portland’s International Rose Test Garden in a sea of jump cuts and subtitles. There’s kissing, archery, much wine, and plenty more bickering: “Her face was so close to me all day!” “I couldn’t see her face because it was on my face.” I’ll continue to support Portlandia in its serialized efforts, so long as it still produces moments like this along the way.
- This week in the Portland Milk Advisory Board: Octopus milk, courtesy of Royce’s new girlfriend who works for the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Neither he nor Alicia are particularly enthused about it, though his reasoning is sound: “Her legs go from here to next Tuesday! And for a guy like me… I gotta take it.”
- Last week’s commenters correctly pointed that Fred’s girlfriend in the third date sketch was played by Rose Byrne, late of Damages and X-Men: First Class. I am annoyed at myself for missing that.
- I just cannot get over how much I loved the placards for the live art projects. Winner is Carrie’s mom, with the placard for Carrie herself: “Mixed media: vagina, penis.” (And it’s made even better by the response “Then I sold you for a good price to these men.”)
- Best deadpan delivery of the night goes to Fred’s response to Alexandra’s sudden appearance at their table. “We’re talking about Afghanistan.”
- Life imitating art: Cinetopia is in fact a real theater in Portland, whose website claims that it “exceeds all current movie-going standards and amenities offered in the Northwest.”
- I’ll be off next week. Be nice to my fill-in! Pour them the milk of your choice.