While Portlandia likes to skewer a variety of topics in its satire, the central trait that unites most of its targets is that they take things entirely too seriously. Be it selecting the right place to have brunch or come up with a theme song for the city, the residents of Portlandia are gripped with an obsession to be the best versions of themselves they can be. And while they’re often pretentious in their convictions, they’re also largely harmless, held back by a mix of gullibility and earnestness that means their goals flame out in a way that’s fun to watch.
“Ecoterrorists” is full of Portlanders getting way too invested in their projects, yet it’s also an episode that has a message buried in the sketches. It doesn’t try to encourage its characters to abandon their passions—Portlandia has too much affection for its cast to do that—but it does suggest that maybe those passions could be directed into better avenues. And it’s a suggestion that leads to more uplifting results, exploits not so much flaming out as settling into a pause that’s both awkward and sweet at the same time.
As the title indicates, the runner sketch of the episode centers on a group of ecoterrorists who are enraged at the actions of an animal testing facility and determined to make them pay. Unfortunately, their plans for doing so don’t go any farther than getting on the roof of the facility and hanging a banner, a move Armisen’s character is convinced will shake them to their core. “Interrupting your work day much? We showed up uninvited and unannounced!” he bellows from the rooftop, oblivious to the fact that only two or three office workers are pointing and laughing. Here’s a clear example of reach exceeding grasp, as this group are the worst commandos possible, with outfits better suited to a rave and more attention paid to bullhorn sound effects. It’s an amusing and eclectic bunch, as one member—played by Olivia Wilde—is merely waiting around for the right moment to take her top off, while another named Brandon is so uncommitted he can’t even find words to say.
After a second attempt fails—despite adding puppets to the routine and the time-honored solution of putting a bird on it—the ramshackle group finds a new target for their energy when a child buzzes past claiming that he’s escaped. Nothing excites Portlandia residents more than a new cause, and they eagerly adopt their methods to assault the “child labor camp,” which of course turns out to be the kid’s house. It’s a classic misunderstanding, but the sketch subverts that expectation by having the parents surprisingly won over by the attention to detail put into the “protest,” and they suggest that maybe there’s a better way to use these talents. It leads to a serious question, something rarely asked in this disconnected world: “Do we want to be revolutionaries, or entertainers?”
Cut to Matthew’s birthday party, where the banner and the costumers have been reappropriated as decorations, and the answer is there because for once the enthusiasm of the group feels genuine. True, there’s one minor snag at the end when Wilde’s character excitedly pops out of the cake with her top off, but it’s still closer to a victory than they would have had otherwise. (And given that Matthew’s eyes don’t get covered until after the fact—by the puppet hand, hilariously—I’m guessing he got his birthday wish.)
Another small victory comes in the season’s first appearance of Portland’s most uptight couple—which is saying something—as Women and Women First return in a financial bind. Toni and Candace decide to raise funds to pay their rent by throwing a car wash, an effort that in the early going goes about as well as can be expected. First, they managed to be the least enthusiastic cheerleaders for the effort possible (“Don’t beep! Stop! Don’t slow down and then drive off!”) and then when they finally attract a customer their hyper-PC attitudes appear to make him regret his decision almost immediately. Candace asks every single question to confirm a dog has never been in the same vicinity of the car, while Toni turns to ice at the mere suggestion that a single car wash stereotype come to pass in this situation.
The punchline of the sketch turns out to be that for all their bad attitudes, Toni and Candace make surprisingly good car wash attendants. The narrative could have easily ended—and still worked—with the customer’s car scratched up or reupholstered with vagina pillows, but he leaves with a gleaming vehicle and Toni and Candace get one step closer to paying their rent. It’s a victory that leads to a rare burst of enthusiasm as they start spraying each other with hoses, unintentionally living the cliché of car wash girls they tried so hard to avoid, right down to the stylistic choices of the action going to slow-mo and the rock music kicking up accordingly. Of course they snap out of it once they realize they’re having something that could be equated as fun and stop right away—but once again, baby steps.
“Ecoterrorists” also sees the return of Portlandia’s other worst small business owners, the perpetually cheerful Bryce and Lisa. After failing to hit it big with putting birds on things, pickling everything in sight or overloading hotels with outlets, they’ve decided they need to turn a quick buck to stay solvent. The solution? Rent It Out!, a venture where they put everything they have up for rent, up to and including their own services. (“Anything, anyone? Isn’t that like prostitution?” “Not if it’s on a really cute website.”) The joke of these sketches has always been a semi-good idea quickly made worse, and this is their worst idea yet, turning them into unqualified labor and exiling them to their own rooftop. Unfortunately, while it’s still funny there’s a clear feeling of diminishing returns with this type of sketch. With “put a bird on it” its quotability peaked early on, and that vibe hasn’t been captured since.
This week’s Fred/Carrie sketch is a lighter installment for the pair after last season’s narrative odyssey, but it allows Portlandia to wholeheartedly unleash its music geek vibe. A free ticket to a Jay-Z concert leads Fred to have a horrifying dream about being called out in the middle of the show, waking Carrie up late at night to admit he doesn’t know anything about hip-hop. “I think it passed me by,” Fred says in a sad voice. Carrie sits him down for a crash course in the genre’s history, a sequence peppered with Fred’s confused questions and mangling of various groups. (“So, was Sir Mix-a-Lot in the Wu-Tan Clan? … Uh, Queen Latifah is against The 2 Live Crew.”) The sketch succeeds largely because its focus on Fred’s own ignorance keeps it accessible to similar hip-hop neophytes, and the upbeat music that accompanies Carrie’s lessons is almost the polar opposite of the music they’re discussing.
The lessons prove to be a success, as Fred brings the house down with his favorite moment in hip-hop (“New York City, 1997!”) and he’s able to pay it forward by opening Carrie up to the mechanics of tapas. I’ve talked at times about the affection Portlandia has for its main characters, and “Ecoterrorists” is a clear sign of wanting to deliver a little happiness in their lives, even if it has to step off the beaten path to deliver it to them.
Other sketches of the week are intermittently amusing, if largely disposable. Dave and Kath deal with Kath’s insomnia, giving us a glimpse into their twisted co-dependent relationship (“I don’t want us to die.” “It’ll just be me! You’ll probably sleep through my death”). Elsewhere, an exciting loft opportunity turns into a problem for an enterprising couple when they’re unable to meet their $275 rent goal (“Are we in Morocco or something?”) and have to keep adding people until they reach that goal.
This Week In Portland: Smut Vintage, where Fred and Carrie peruse ironic hats, is one of Portland’s better vintage shops. I acquired a Royal typewriter in near-mint condition there.
Portland Pet Haven returns with “Marley, our rasta dog.” Some of you in the comments last week were excited to see these sketches as they date back to the original ThunderAnt sketches, but they just make me miss the Milk Advisory Board.
The description of Fred as “that Rick Moranis-looking dude” is one I’ll probably never get out of my head now. Thanks, disembodied voice of Jay Pharoah!
If Matthew ever wants to recapture that glorious moment with Olivia Wilde, Drinking Buddies is streaming on Netflix.
For all their creativity, the ecoterrorists aren’t very good at coming up with new names should they need to flee the country. “Dakota.” “Me too!” “I’m gonna say Dakoto. Like a male version.”
Best line of the episode: “They’re still testing on animals. They just dumped a barrel of monkeys off the roof. Dead monkeys.” “Literally, we just saw that.”
“I’ve got water in my vagina.”
“What kind of kid gets in a van?”
“Is that a shrug, Brandon?”