Last week, I made the argument that the gradual improvements in Portlandia’s construction could support its growth outside of the boundaries of a sketch comedy show, and that if it wanted to, the show could evolve to a more sitcom-based sense of humor with little difficulty. And lo and behold, the season’s third episode is trying to do almost exactly that, with virtually all of the sketches (Portland Milk Advisory Board aside) tied together by a centralized narrative.
So despite the show doing exactly what I wanted it to, why am I not particularly impressed with this episode? Well, that may have something to do with the subject of the plot, which is—as the title implies—Nina’s birthday. Nina being Nina, her birthday has to be a vast and perfect experience mapped out by way of a magazine, beginning with a pre-dawn horseback ride and sunrise yoga, segueing to a party bus and a disco nap room, and closing with a Mexican mariachi sunset horseback ride. (Pre-dawn ride is free, sunset is not. Because of the mariachis.) Lance, of course, couldn’t care less about the whole event, with his sole concession offering to dress up, a role he kicks and screams his way through: “Tails? What am I, a magician?”
It’s a promising direction for the show to take narratively. Sadly, this narrative doesn’t work for me, largely because Nina and Lance are one of my least favorite versions of the Fred Armisen/Carrie Brownstein duo. Yes, this is the couple that introduced one of the show’s early catchphrases in “Cacao!”, but I’ve never found them as endearing as Fred/Carrie, Toni/Candace or even Bryce/Lisa. I find both the characters fairly one-note, and the voices that Armisen and Brownstein adopt don’t endear either of them to me—Nina is like nails on a chalkboard, and Lance’s gravely tones are more than a little unsettling. I’ve got nothing against a little gender-role reversal, but these characters are simply trying too hard for me to enjoy them for more than a short sketch, let alone an entire episode.
And characters aside, the central conflict isn’t terribly interesting, especially given that the characters are off on their own for the most part. Nina goes to tapas dinner alone (most of the big plans apparently abandoned) and makes weak excuses for why Lance hasn’t shown up yet. Lance heads east to a bar in Canby, where he meets up with Jim (a biker in the vein of the The Stranger from The Big Lebowski) who persuades him to head back and make the grand gesture of providing two horses. And for a close, the band No Doubt appears in a balloon as a callback to Nina’s idealization of Gwen Stefani’s own birthday, but all they’re there to do is wave and say they can’t hear anything Nina’s saying. First Jack White in the holiday episode, and now this—Portlandia seems to have an odd habit of squandering its musical guest stars.
Fortunately, there are still plenty of things that work in “Nina’s Birthday”—they just happen to be elements that are only tangentially related to the main plot. The best one comes from a comment left by “Thor83” on Nina’s birthday Evite, who RSVPs by saying he’ll come with 97 guests, a prank post that sends Lance into hysterics. And with good reason, as Thor83 is played by none other than recently appointed Harlan County constable and A.V. Club patron saint Patton Oswalt. I’ve been anticipating Oswalt’s appearance ever since it was announced, and his talent for playing obsessives is well-used here, pacing and agonizing over his posts with the same momentum others would approach a short story. “You have invented the world of funny Evite replies. Now rule your kingdom!” Likewise, his faux modesty when Fred and Carrie recognize him and his revelation that he never attends any events are tailored to his particular comic strengths and unassuming style. (Unfortunately, real life sabotages one of the punchlines, as his reply to a paintball invite “I’ll bring the real gun” is decidedly uncomfortable given current events.)
Also new to Portlandia this week are comedians Mike O’Brien of 7 Minutes In Heaven and Maria Thayer of Eagleheart, playing a couple whose finances have been drained by attending too many of their friends’ birthdays. An inability to refuse these situations has led them to desperate straits, social obligations at war with their bank account. The somber piano in the background invests the scene with dramatic feeling, a balance that works well with just how absurd and neurotic their topic of conversation is. (“I know a guy who robs liquor stores, and if you just drive he gives you a cut of it.”) And if I’m being perfectly honest, it’s a breath of fresh air to see a couple on the show that isn’t played by Armisen and Brownstein.
The couple’s crisis is so deep it sends them to a bank for a “birthday loan,” and the service of Kumail Nanjiani. Portlandia has proven that Nanjiani explaining minutiae in a measured tone is never not funny—from cellphone plans to menu options—and he’s back in prime form going over the forms necessary to secure their loan. Once again, they give him increasingly random things to say, which he treats with the utmost seriousness. (“It’s a 6.5 percent interest, and the asterisk means we round it up to 8. For all intents and purposes it is 8. The 6.5 interest loan is the name of it.”) He also gets the episode’s best bit of physical comedy, telling O’Brien and Thayer they can’t have any of the lollipops on his desk (“Those are display pops”), grabbing one while he’s typing, and then replacing it in the wrapper as soon as he’s done with the loan.
Finally, Dave and Kath are there to inject the party with some of their patented self-importance. Inflated by a recent trip to Spain, the two are transformed into the ultimate “that couple” who think that a brief stint in a foreign country makes them world travelers, and who feel it’s their obligation to bring some culture to the uneducated masses. No one does insufferable as well as these two, and they’re in fine form as they lecture the waiters on the right way to pour wine, walk right into the kitchen to critique the cilantro, and decide to make it a real Spanish birthday complete with flamenco guitar and table dance. This gives us both a Brownstein musical number and Armisen dancing, two things the show would benefit from adding on a regular basis.
“Nina’s Birthday” isn’t the successful foray into a more narrative-driven format for Portlandia I was hoping for, but it is a hopeful sign for the direction of the show. Were an episode to entirely revolve around Toni and Candace trying to keep their store open, Fred, Carrie, and the Mayor’s latest scheme to build Portland tourism, or Bryce and Lisa seeking the next big idea, I still think that could work. Hopefully the rest of the season will prove me right.
- In a more promising sign of continuity, Chloë Sevigny pops up for a few seconds in Fred and Carrie’s kitchen (and yet curiously none of them go to the party despite an Evite). Looks like I’ll get my wish and Alexandra will be a recurring character after all this season.
- The third installment of the Portland Milk Advisory Board sees berry-seed milk rejected as it’s just jam (I was right!) and Royce now endorsing raw cow’s milk. “Don’t be put off by the color… s.” I look forward to stringing all these sketches together once the season’s over to watch the growth of Royce’s irritation and Alicia’s smugness, and to see just how indignant one can get over their UC-Davis degree.
- Best throwaway gag: the fixer at the end of the tapas dinner who breaks down the bill with an efficiency reminiscent of Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction.
- I would watch a Portlandia episode centered around RSVP Fest, complete with the Reply stage, the Maybe tent, and “Plus 97” shirts for sale.
- Sadly, Thor83’s local celebrity does not reflect real-life Portland’s approach to people who spend way too much time thinking about what they write on the Internet. I do a lot of my writing in coffee shops, and not once has anyone come up to me and said “Are you The A.V. Club’s Les Chappell?”
- “We’re in the tapas ghetto here. I think we’re going to have to fill up on garnish.”
- “Are we gonna go on a horseback ride?” “Just you and me. And these horses. And No Doubt.”