Portlandia: "Blunderbuss"
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Portlandia: "Blunderbuss"

Good news! Portlandia was renewed for a second season! Bad news: We'll have to wait until January of next year to get our fix of Northwesterner-needling. Also bad news: Tonight's episode has my vote for the season's worst, and its overpowering star-wattage just illuminates the near-total lack of laffs. I talked a little bit last week about the hit-to-miss ratio of even "good" sketch comedy and how I think you have to be a little more forgiving of the lows, since sketch can't chug along on the strength of its characters or narrative like a sturdy sitcom can. Well, "Blunderbuss" has some middling material, but no super-sketches to make the weaknesses feel like any less of a slog.

The owner of a missing cat and a promoter for the Blunderbuss festival (a riff on Seattle's annual Bumbershoot) are engaged in a tit-for-tat turf war on a telephone pole that, puzzlingly, can only support one poster at a time. The escalation of poster primping isn't especially funny, and the best material here is probably the band names and kitten qualities. Like a good Simpsons background gag, it's worth it to take a moment to pause the DVR and enjoy the details: The kitten "is named Jennifer, but responds to Jenny" and apparently "likes music." Also, Portland can boast of bands named "Frog Hat" and "Mad Dad."

Okay, so a pretty mild opening sketch, even if the googly eyes were a nice touch. This episode is structured differently from the others in that everything builds from the music and film festival, so maybe the weaknesses I see here can be chalked up to Armisen and Brownstein being hamstrung by the premise. In any event, the "Deuce Hotel" casts the pair as employees who've brought the bicycle dude's "over it" attitude to a douche-y boutique hotel that offers complementary turntables and typewriters, but not necessarily running water. A DJ spins oppressively annoying beats to weary out-of-towners like Sleater Kinney's Corin Tucker, The Decemberists' Colin Meloy, and The Shins' James Mercer, who together make up Echo Echo, the Blunderbuss headliners. Fred and Carrie unsuccessfully try to suck up to the band by first verbally and then literally trashing their own hotel, and in the sketch's best moment, Portlandia editor Doug Lussenhop skids in on a skateboard and takes the two to task while wearing a mesh trucker cap with "manager" printed on it like one of Judah Friedlander's 30 Rock Hats.

So we're two sketches in and the laughs have been mild, but here's where the episode really goes off the rails for me. A forlorn guitarist (The Decemberists' multi-instrumentalist Jenny Conlee) tries to make her way into the Blunderbuss festival, but gets rebuffed at the door. When a gold-leggings-clad Carrie tells her that "no guy would want to get you pregnant," Conlee goes into a pony reverie, the likes of which is probably the inspiration behind her stage name: Sparklehor—I mean, Sparklepony. I don't understand where the laughs are supposed to be coming from here and I couldn't shake the feeling that I was just missing some all-important gag.

Now, the "Ambient Acupuncture" sketch felt like it could have been just what the episode needed. It's a break from the music and film festival, and it's also an opportunity for Fred and Carrie to fuse music and comedy—something I think they're especially skilled at. (It should be noted that Armisen played drums in Trenchmouth before pursuing comedy, and he's also released Complicated Drumming Technique, which goofs on instructional DVDs.) There are some good jokes here, like when the Roving Singles delve into the minutiae of their relationship or admit that their CD's require you to write the band name yourself, but overall it felt like a wasted opportunity, and it couldn't help but call to mind the similarly middling Upright Citizens Brigade sketch "Japanoitretching" about a fitness class that combined Japanese noise-rock with stretching to the delight of absolutely no one.

After that, there's another Sparklepony bit, this one with some of the show's increasingly prevalent voice-modulation. Then, in what feels like another could-have-been-great segment, we get the Selma Blair-starring festival film, Finding Mr. Write. The movie's a dopey quirk-fest with intrusive titles, relentless voice-over, and lines like "I don't want a guy who studied rocks, I want a guy who is a rock." Somehow, the leather jacketed Warnicker Bros. snagged Gus Van Sant for their post-screening Q&A session, during which Fred takes the opportunity to go full-on Nicholas Fehn with rhetorical nonsense like "What is a date? What are Americans now? Is it the, the Norman Rockwind painting?" He has some good techno-babble here too, including a reference to part of the film that was shot in B&W and subsequently tossed into a dumpster. Overall, it's a nice compilation of the worst kinds of Q&A sessions, with a shiny celebrity cameo to boot, but I think if it appeared in any of the other Portlandia episodes, it would be filler instead of a highlight.

"Blunderbuss" ends relatively strong, with Conlee shipped off to Alaska along with the cool-conscious hotel employees, who've rejiggered their standards to match their new surroundings and welcome Sparklepony as a fellow creative-type. Both Carrie and Fred nail the calculated casualness of their wannabe characters, pairing the episode's best performances with some of its best dialogue, like when they admit they're "having problems with the keys 100% of the time," and when they ask a 12-year-old boy if he's too old for a pacifier. The episode wraps with Sparklepony getting the impromptu concert she always craved, as Armisen creepily, unblinkingly stares into the middle distance. (Come to think of it, that seems to be a trait shared by all of his weirdest characters.) Yes, a sketch or two did work in "Blunderbuss," but they were just the ballast that kept the episode from floating away entirely. It was inevitable: the show's first real stinker, but next week's finale is made of stronger stuff, and I'm confident they have the ideas to carry them through another season.

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