Portlandia: "Mayor Is Missing"
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Portlandia: "Mayor Is Missing"

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Portlandia

"Mayor Is Missing"

Season 1, Episode 4

Any regular reader of The A.V. Club knows that there's no more pampered, more sacrosanct comedic holy cow than Mr. Show for many of us. I'd be hard-pressed to name another piece of pop-culture that has had a greater impact on my own comedic tastes, and I know lots of comedy nerds who feel similarly. Growing up, my parents didn't spring for HBO, but I sneaked into their bedroom and navigated to that deliciously off-limits, scrambled cable channel to listen to Bob Odenkirk's part in "The Joke: The Musical," even though the visuals were a glitched-out mess. Like a Phi Beta Kappa hazing or a stint in army boot camp, the hardships involved in watching an episode just made me value the experience more. And since people are, more or less, tangled collections of their experiences, when someone doesn't bust a gut during "Change for a Dollar" or maybe shoots me a quizzical look after "Van Hammersly," it's hard not to take it personally.

That's all a long-winded way of saying that even though Mr. Show is as good as sketch gets for my money, and though it pains me to dwell on them, I still recognize that it had plenty of bum sketches: "Iguana," anyone? How about the endless, jokeless "3rd Wheel Legend" or "Fad Three"? Sketch comedy, if it's done right, goes out on lots of limbs. No matter how good the cast and writing staff, lots of those limbs are going to crack. So I think there's a certain acceptable rate of failure in even the best comedy outfits, which is why even though consistency is certainly a valuable trait in sketch, when the dust has finally settled, it's the high points that are going to matter more than the winning streaks.

While Portlandia is obviously not even in the same time zone as Mr. Show, quality-wise, "Mayor is Missing" features the highest highs of the whole season for me, and its few slow scenes shouldn't be given undue weight. This is as good as the show gets this season, folks. Like Mr. Show, Portlandia is interested in the general more than the specific—types more than celebrities. That focus is part of what made Mr. Show such an enduring institution while episodes of SNL from just six months ago already feel past their expiration dates. "Did You Read..." expertly ramps up its cognoscenti pissing contest until we've transitioned from New Yorker articles to McSweeney's pieces to fortune cookies to skywriting, and it all happens so quickly that we barely notice as we enter increasingly silly territory. It's no wonder that Portlandia leans on its editor for punchlines more than most sketch shows; it has crackerjack Tim & Eric alum Doug Lussenhop available to cut at just the right beat or to repeat just the right line of dialogue to make the whole scene work. He's the unseen third player in this bit, and I can't help but feel that his influence is all over the show—maybe even to the same degree that Fred Armisen's or Carrie Brownstein's is.

Following some table-setting business with Edie McClurg that establishes the disappearance of Kyle MacLachlan, Portland's mayor, Aubrey Plaza makes her second appearance of the season in the house-sitting sketch. Wow, just writing that I realize how much guest-star glut the show is suffering from. (Next week's episode's got it even worse, and just like the star-studded "Tennis" episode of Tim & Eric Awesome Show, big names don't necessarily translate into big laughs.) Plaza's lucked into another great sketch—this time watching the home of Bryce and Lisa, the couple from the also-excellent "Put a Bird on It." There's some funny improv work here when Bryce demonstrates what expressions he likes to make while drifting off to sleep and waking up, and there's a nice callback with the bird silhouettes on the luggage. What really makes this segment though is Bryce acting out the dangers of flicking on the light switch, complete with scratched corneas and smashed temples. I remember being excited by the increased presence of Carrie in "A Song for Portland," but when Fred completely nails it like this, I don't necessarily need the variety. Plaza, for her part, is a functional straight woman, but I haven't really seen her do much more than play the brat in Funny People, Parks & Rec, or Mystery Team. And when I've heard her out of character on podcasts like Doug Loves Movies she hits that same sullen note. I don't mean to rag on her too hard. Adopting an attitude-heavy, record-store-gal persona is a canny move, considering it's a type that's pretty much universally lusted after by male geeks; I just haven't seen her bring anything particularly special to a role yet, although I'd be happy to be proven wrong.

Michael and Michael Have Issues player Kumail Nanjiani appears in the next sketch as a mobile phone rep for Wireless Toyz whose idea of a one-time fee is "it's a one-time fee in the sense that you only have to pay once a year." This is the first time the story sketch really earns some laughs. Like Eric Idle of the Pythons, Armisen is a lover of great, discombobulated trains of excessive verbiage, whether he's sputtering as Nicholas Fehn, or in sketches like this one, where he's being assaulted by words that inhibit rather than facilitate communication.

The rest of the episode busies itself with the revelation that the mayor is actually in a reggae band (and apparently sometimes sports a soul patch). It's a satisfying conclusion with most of the laugh lines coming from asides like Carrie talking about the Minutemen playing high on the neck of the bass and Fred confirming that the milkshake-making bartender isn't going to go "too cold on that, right?" The subsequent press conference devolves into a discussion of rude boys, Augustus Pablo, and "real roots reggae," all enhanced by MacLachlan's bone-dry delivery. Aside from a wasted appearance by the bicycle rights guy in the pointless "Birthday" sketch and the too-long, too-late "Work is Play" bit, this is an excellent episode and probably my favorite of the season. I can understand if the high concentration of hip references was a bit off-putting, but the quick succession of "House Sitting" and "Did You Read..." pretty much secured this episode's place at the top of the heap for me.

Stray observations:

  • Before Carrie and Fred leave Wireless Toyz, they've scored a pair of "Bitch" sunglasses that seem to render the wearer completely sightless—a Cinco product perhaps?
  • Did MacLachlan say "dubbed reggae" during the press conference?
  • Yes, I admit that the ending of the first sketch with the "Don't Walk" light was a little muted trumpet "wa-wa" for my taste. The rest of it was comedy gold, though.