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Portlandia: “Celery”

Vegetable warfare is made epic.

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Portlandia

"Celery"

Season 4, Episode 3
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Portlandia

"Celery"

Season 4, Episode 3

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While the first two episodes of Portlandia this season have offered up some solid sketches and consistent laughs, I admit to being a bit disappointed in the early going. My favorite flavor of Portlandia is when the show’s trying to step outside its boundaries, which is why I was such a fan of the third season’s attempt to transform its universe into a narrative ecosystem. And so far the show hasn’t established any similar groove—yes, it’s still early in the season, but this time last year there was a stronger sense that it was laying groundwork for something more.

Consequently, I found “Celery” to be a welcome shot in the arm for the show. It doesn’t return to the serialized approach of last year—or if it does it’s in ways not easily detected—but it does restore some of the imagination that I’ve felt was lacking in the first few sketches. Portlandia gains a lot of mileage out of the heightened reality of its universe, and these sketches restore both the scope and the surreality that the show is capable of in its finer moments.

Interestingly, that innovation is driven by the return of Portlandia’s oldest guest star: Steve Buscemi, who hasn’t appeared since the pilot episode. This time around he plays Marty, a vegetable executive on his last legs due to the failure of celery in the marketplace and an inability to find promotion beyond Bloody Marys and raisin/peanut butter combos. Buscemi’s been doing such great dramatic work on Boardwalk Empire these last few years that it’s a treat to see him return to comedic roots, even as the sketch has a deliberately old-fashioned shooting style that keeps it in his current wheelhouse. He balances Marty’s Willie Loman-level misery with a goofy out-of-touch approach, trying to pitch Popeye cartoons for cross-promotion and losing it at a bartender who opts for pickles in his Bloody Mary: “This is bullshit! This is not proper bartending!”

After pressing a reluctant coworker for help Marty receives a card with only one word on it—“BACON”—and he’s immediately roped into a conspiracy that’s equal parts Indecent Proposal and Parks And Recreation. Given that so many Portlandia sketches depend on Armisen and Brownstein either playing off each other or allied in reaction to an outside force, it’s noteworthy to see someone else get between the pair, and Buscemi inserts new levels of mortification and anger that interacts well with both of them. Armisen gets to chew the scenery as a bacon mogul channeling a Bond villain, while Brownstein opts for a matter-of-fact sexuality that somehow manages to be supportive of Marty. (“I give a great handjob by the way, that is not a downgrade.” “Wow.” “It’s gonna feel like intercourse for him.”)

From there the third act of the sketch is twist upon twist, as Marty’s approached by a representative of the FBI (played by Grimm’s Silas Weir Mitchell) looking to bring down “Big Bacon.” First he agrees to wear a wire, then after panicking he realizes that the FBI are in fact agents of the long disenfranchised corn lobby, and then the entire sketch is exposed as the plot of the latest John Grisham novel designed to market celery as a dangerous vegetable. On a lesser show this would feel like hitting the eject button on an idea that doesn’t work, but the whole affair has built to such a heightened reality that it makes as much sense as anything else in the story.

If the celery runner is an example of Portlandia using its structure to do something new, the social bankruptcy plot is an example of the show finding a smart way to revamp an old reliable. The sketch is essentially Technology Loop 2.0—Carrie’s overwhelmed by the constant flow of messages and social media updates—but rather than being consumed by it she decides to cut it off entirely with the help of Geoffrey, another Kumail Nanjiani bureaucrat. The technology loop sketch was about overload, and this one is about the void when that overload is removed. With no profile on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, Fred has no way of recognizing her, to the point that she fades away entirely when running away—past a Fred whose status update simply reads “Lonely.” Portlandia’s satire works best when it’s low-key, and this fade out gets the point across better than a bombastic punchline.

Despite staying plugged Geoffrey’s not much happier about his life, so much so that in another sketch he eagerly asks to join a group of gutter punks he walks past. At this point Portlandia has so conditioned us to see Najiani in the guise of faceless bureaucrat that it’s a breath of fresh air to see him actively participating in the insanity, swapping his white collar outfit for skeleton shirts and a backpack with a horn. His spectator’s attachment to the lifestyle also exposes the similar hypocrisy of the gutter punks, as it turns out they’re residents of the suburbs themselves. (A cuttingly true observation if you’re familiar with Portland’s gutter punk population.)

Other sketches are more grounded, but remain thematically connected thanks to their focus on food. The opening sketch places both Armisen and Brownstein as frizzy-haired employees at a 911 response center, dealing with calls about “blood everywhere” and filled with hysterical sobbing. The twist is that every problem is related to the consumption of beets—beets apparently being the anti-lupus—and they’re able to solve every call with that answer, even the ones involving actual disasters. (The latter featuring the welcome return of Jeff Goldblum, who reaches peak Goldblum levels when he’s in Portlandia.) The constant switching between “dramatic tension” and “everything’s going to be all right” musical themes keeps the energy level high, and the various self-centered asides from Armisen (“They can’t see me rolling my eyes”) ties it into the recurring theme that everyone who performs customer service in this world is terrible at it.

Certainly that applies to the Order Grill sketch. Portland’s newest restaurant is designed to offer up the highest level of customization for every meal, except it adds so many layers to the experience that the meal itself never happens: soda and ice stations at opposite ends of the terminal, three different ways to receive your order but it all boiling down to a server yelling your order out to the masses. Once again, it’s not far off from some of the dining experiences from hell that Armisen and Brownstein have delivered before, but it’s the commitment to this terrible idea that sells the sketch—particularly Brownstein channeling Tilda Swinton as the restaurant founder. “What I’ve done is I’ve changed the type, the entire essence of ordering,” she says to a bemused customer right before sending her down the pastrami rabbit hole. Portlandia is all about good ideas that become terrible, but this is in a new league: an idea that was terrible at first and then only makes it worse.

Stray observations:

  • This Week in Portland: Carrie’s first stop post-emancipation is the Red E Cafe, a shop that’s a favorite of Brownstein’s in real life and that makes a mean pour over coffee.

  • Portland Pet Haven Pet of the Week: Jack White, the dog who loves to run away. “If you want to make flyers, want to be stressed out all night, that dog is for you.”

  • Your social circle after declaring social bankruptcy: Branwen, Aunt Elizabeth, Dave, Coma Dave, and a baby. (Hilariously, all of them are eating Marty’s oft-maligned snack of celery with raisins and peanut butter.)

  • A definite treat to see Weir Mitchell stopping by. It’s a bit surprising that it’s taken both shows this long to feature any sort of crossover, given that they’re both shot in the same city and draw from the same pool of supporting actors (the head of the Wesen Counsel and Fjohürs Lykkewe from “Bring Back MTV” are one and the same). Perhaps in the future Armisen and Brownstein could appear as Wesen? Reggie Lee and Russell Hornsby could play cops in a Portlandia sketch? Please offer your suggestions below.

  • “Heirloom tomatoes didn’t even exist five years ago! Now people eat them like steak.”

  • Pink retweeted one of Geoffrey’s tweets: “An abacus is a machine you can really count on.” Carrie: “I can’t wait to miss out on jokes like that.”

  • “Have you ever seen a Venus fly-trap? It’s kind of a plant and kind of an animal at the same time.”

  • “I was gonna whore myself out. Is that still on the table?”

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