In the book version of his popular website Stuff White People Like, Christian Lander offered the following description of Portland: “Essentially a Lord Of The Flies scenario in the Pacific Northwest instead of the South Pacific. In both cases, we have a situation whereby a homogenous group of people is left alone in an area with no one to keep them in check. Eventually the euphoria and self-congratulation devolves into savagery and murder. Portland has not yet reached the stage where they smash Piggy’s glasses, but there is a strong likelihood that the city will have mass riots and murder when the local grocery co-op runs out of organic wild salmon.”
While I don’t think real Portland subscribes exactly to this viewpoint—the inciting incident will obviously be when our stockpile of craft microbrews finally dries up—the Portlandia universe is certainly one that always seems to be teetering on the edge of a psychotic break. Many of the show’s strongest sketches have gotten their mileage from taking characters who are incredibly serious about one thing—be it playing the gentlest music or painting birds on every surface—and then showing just how worked up they get when that worldview is challenged even a little bit. Witness Toni and Candace, who feel as if they’re one Yelp review away from lighting their entire customer base on fire; or Dave and Kath, who are so tightly wound that one dream can lead them to run with the coyotes and devour house pets. And the events of the season finale “Blackout” are ones designed to try the souls of all the city’s fair-trade residents, as the power to the entire city is shut down with the press of a button.
While the idea of a city-wide blackout would be interesting enough on its own—perhaps converting Portlandia into a “Revolution meets the Super Bowl” scenario—the reason why “Blackout” is so interesting is that it’s a culmination of much of the previous season. Any of you who have been reading these reviews know that I’m an ardent supporter of Portlandia’s efforts to move away from standalone sketches in its third season, incorporating more serialized elements in to its episodes and tightening up its runner sketches. Part of that is a qualitative thing—I genuinely believe the characters and world Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein have build can support the move—but much of it is because I can’t think of any other sketch comedy show that’s done this before. You never saw Monty Python’s Flying Circus, for instance, turning the Dead Parrot pet shop into a recurring location, or Saturday Night Live weaving narrative callbacks into Hans and Franz sketches.
Portlandia has been trying this more ambitious format ever since the success of “Brunch Special,” and “Blackout” showed it’s been playing a longer game than even I expected. The blackout is triggered by the city’s utter lack of management following the Mayor’s abdication in “Off The Grid” and rejecting his replacement in “The Temp,” which has essentially left Portland managed by a voicemail inbox for weeks. Fred and Carrie are the only ones in a position to save the city, but after the events of “Alexandra” and “No-Fo-O-Fo-Bridge” they’re barely on speaking terms. The end result of this is that there’s a new sense of engagement with the episode—their quest to find the mayor and restore the power isn’t a random adventure, it’s the third act of a story. (And one that’s still allowed to be funny, as they awkwardly dance around their separation and hiss “Stop interrogating me!” the minute a flashlight beam touches either of their faces.)
Fred and Carrie pursue the Mayor into the woods outside the city, only to discover that he’s moved to the “end of the road” and gone full Colonel Kurtz, living in a commune, speaking only in strange hushed tones and animalistic yelps. “You make me laugh, man with glass windows on his face!” he says cheerfully when Fred tries to communicate through the latter. Here’s another instance where three seasons worth of time with these characters leads to a satisfying payoff, as after some false starts, Fred and Carrie find exactly the right words to penetrate the Mayor’s psyche. The Fred-Carrie-Mayor trifecta is the strongest combination the show has, and watching this conversation play out is a delight: “The neighboring city… Under the cover of darkness, they might erect a Space Needle in Portland!” “Space Needle… ” “Portland could become a suburb of Seattle!” “This word disturbs me.”
Another earlier story given its third act in “Blackout” is Peter and Nance’s B&B, now over the rough patches of “Soft Opening” and open to the public—at least until the lights go out, at which point Nance has to herd the entire population into a “panic parlor” and Peter has a series of elaborate nervous breakdowns. (“Just an alert to you guys, I’ve discovered that I have a fear of the dark. Is the house on fire? I’m imagining suffocating.”) A gentleman named Birdman (played by Armisen’s fellow Saturday Night Live alum Bill Hader) comes into the B&B at the tensest moment, and decides that it’s time for all the residents to go on a “walkabout.” “I think Mother Nature wants you to get to know her a little better,” he leers at Peter and Nance, who are both still disturbed that neither can remember checking him in.
Birdman is one of Portlandia’s less successful guest stars—not by any fault of Hader’s, but he’s playing a character who’s intentionally too broad for the show’s sense of humor, and the intentional broadness doesn’t make him as funny in execution as he was in theory. (Blackadder’s Lord Flashheart comes to mind as another easy example of this trope.) The thick Australian accent he adopts does provide some good reactions from Armisen however, as Peter is so flustered by his inability to interpret Birdman’s words he can’t even pronounce his own name or those of the Beatles. (“Tom. Gehrig?”) And he also deserves credit for one of the episode’s better lines, delivered to the B&B clientele at walkabout’s peak: “Your spirit animal should be entering you now! That is not a spirit animal, that is an arrow.”
That arrow happened to be fired by Dave and Kath, who, while they might be terrible at building tents, turn out to be the most well-supplied couple in the city. Their house sports a generator, a full storehouse of pickled goods and around $8,000 of supplies from a sporting goods store. What it does not support however are people who rationally consider their situation, as both are convinced that the world has collapsed in the 10 minutes it took them to get set up and it falls to them to take over and repopulate the world. These two are always a bit of a frightening pair in their intensity, but they’re never a very affectionate couple, making their sudden frantic mating efforts (punctuated by Armisen yelling “I’m cocked! I’m cocked!”) all the more comically disturbing. And in an even more terrifying development, we learn—courtesy of closing scenes that mirror the end of The Terminator—that these efforts have been successful. Portlandia loves to point out how self-absorbed and unqualified most of its parents are, and it’s hard to imagine parenthood doing anything to cure their myriad of problems.
Unsurprisingly, these two aren’t in any way equipped to solve the blackout, so once the Mayor returns to his office and fails to communicate with the power company representative—yet another obstructionist appearance by Kumail Nanjiani—he dispatches his own “big guns.” Those big guns? Toni and Candace, revealed in an excellent climactic moment as they come up on the Tesla coils of Oregon’s power company, complete with their own dramatic catchphrase: “Press one for shut up and go home!” (“There’s no shut up button on phones.” “There is with us!”) It adds to the interconnected nature of the episode, as despite Toni and Candace never sharing a scene with the mayor in the show’s history, he’s aware of their talents and knows when to call on them.
Toni and Candace agree to fill out one form three times, the city’s power goes back on, and Fred and Carrie part ways for what’s seemingly the last time—until Carrie checks her phone to see a text from Fred asking if she’s okay. What follows is a moment out of the closing scene of an indie movie as the music swells, Fred reunites with Alexandra but keeps gazing uncertainly at the door, and then Carrie comes through the door. The drama falls away fairly quickly when Fred explains the text was sent two days ago during the blackout (“You didn’t answer so I thought ‘dead’”) but there’s still enough emotion stored up to make the moment where the two bury the hatchet wholly satisfying: “I’m not Fred without Carrie.” “I’m not Carrie without Fred.”
Portlandia is a show whose stock in trade is being low-key, weird and experimental, but this season’s proved something unexpected: It’s a show that’s also got a heart to it. Yes, we’ll always want to see Toni and Candace drive away their patrons, we’ll want to see Bryce and Lisa finding their next big stupid idea, and we’ll want to see Spyke wage war on every trend imaginable. But maybe we also want to see Peter and Nance sharing a sweet moment alone in their B&B, the Mayor sleeping back behind the desk he belongs at, or Fred and Carrie proving they’re stronger than any cultural tease of a roommate. The people of Portland are crazy, but Portlandia cares about them in its own way—and after three years, it’s found plenty of ways to make the viewer care as well.
Episode grade: A-
Season grade: B+
Season’s best sketch: Unconventional Art
- Portlandia has yet to be renewed for a fourth season at the time of writing, but I’d be shocked not to see it come back. Given that the show recently took home a Writers Guild Award for Outstanding Achievement in Writing Comedy/Variety—upsetting The Daily Show,The Colbert Report, and Saturday Night Live—if Armisen and Brownstein want to do a fourth season, IFC is almost certain to let them.
- This week in the Portland Milk Advisory Board: Milk is closed on account of the blackout. However, we do get a glimpse of Royce’s new Frankenstein-esque girlfriend, who apparently has teeth so bright they can read the milk’s expiration date by their glow. (It’s still good.) These were the best part of the season for me, so it’s a bit disappointing to see they don’t receive a final payoff the same way the other running sketches did.
- Nanjiani hasn’t been fleshed out the way other characters on the show have, but I like the way his random appearances in different roles add to the Springfield-like quality of Portlandia. And his reasonable tones explaining impossible bureaucracy remain a reliable source of comedy: “To us, right now does mean eight business days later. Immediately means six business days later. And today means tomorrow.”
- It appears Malcolm’s imaginary animal from “Bring Back MTV” is getting the media exposure I argued he deserved, as Dave and Kath’s DVR is loaded with episodes of Kugupu. Episode titles: “Kugupu Dies” (a two-parter), “Kugupu Is Risen,” “Kugupu Learns About Email.”
- Women And Women First’s owners do not cope with the blackout well, despite the candlelight doing wonders for their appearances. “I’m just stressed, I don’t want to get looted.” “We can drink milk and journal!” “I’m just gonna freak out.”
- I think my favorite little moment in that closing scene of Fred and Carrie may have been Fred plugging his phone in. Yes, this is a moment where emotions are running high, but the man’s in a technology loop after all.
- Big thanks to Dennis Perkins for filling in for me last week. Great to get the opinions of a representative of the other Portland.
- And with that, this season’s coverage is so over. Thanks everyone for reading and commenting!