Portlandia: “Off The Grid”
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Portlandia: “Off The Grid”

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Portlandia

“Off The Grid” 

Season 3, Episode 6

In an interview with GQ, director David Lynch said of his repeat casting of Kyle MacLachlan, “[He]plays innocents who are interested in the mysteries of life. He’s the person you trust enough to go into a strange world with.” And while Portlandia is certainly not as dark as the worlds of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, there’s no denying that every time MacLachlan shows up for an episode everything feels a little more friendly. As Portland’s overly earnest mayor, he’s an engine of suggestions to improve his city (official songs, baseball teams, goodwill ambassadors), full of endearing quirks (a low-key resentment of Seattle and an exercise ball for an office chair), and enjoys a contagious enthusiasm for Portland’s way of life. He’s a perfect authority figure for a city that doesn’t need much in the way of authority, and it makes me sad that no matter how many times I write him in on my ballot he never gets elected.

With a new mayor elected in real Portland last November, I was curious how, if at all, that change would be reflected in the show’s universe. “Off The Grid” approaches the possibility of a new mayor, and in the process turns out the best episode of the season. Beyond the typically solid use of MacLachlan, it boasts my beloved increases in serialization without sacrificing individual humor, manages to make good use of guest stars musical and otherwise, and is filled with sketches that represent Portlandia’s best instincts of taking a little event and turning it into a grand adventure.

The episode doesn’t seem like it’s heading for adventure territory, however, as it starts at a moment when everything’s going well for the mayor. Fresh from the success of his plastic-bag ban initiative—another instance of art imitating life—the mayor wakes Fred and Carrie up early one morning determined to follow that by making Portland even more progressive and streamlined. “I do like a campaign that says ‘Let’s get on the banned-wagon,’” Carrie admits, and they start throwing out suggestions for new things to ban such as XXXL T-shirts and mittens. Watching MacLachlan, Armisen and Brownstein work together is always a delight, as the latter two get to play straight men to the mayor’s boyish enthusiasm and fall down the rabbit hole to come to such conclusions as XXXL shirts being a waste of “both fabric and body.” Proximity to this trio also works wonders on guest stars because it turns them into cartoon characters, as Alexandra becomes a sounding board with sound effects, popping in to hear their suggestions and heading out on a slide whistle.

This brainstorming session is derailed thanks to a phone call from a Portland Tribune reporter, played by George Wendt. (All together, everyone: “Norm!”) Turns out that the mayor consumes the most energy of any Portland resident. The reveal of the true source of the power drain is played well as Fred and Carrie run down all the possibilities, as the mayor dismisses them with increasingly efficient explanations—he owns a crank-operated razor and downgraded his refrigerator bulb from 15 to eight and a half watts—until the low humming in his house gives away that he also owns a printer that’s been running non-stop for 10 years. It’s completely in character for the mayor, who is utterly incapable of having a dark secret: He’s just too damn nice to stop the printer he named Prince, and has been feeding it paper every night so it can stop when it’s ready to stop. “It’s not even printing anything out—just an error message!” Fred yells. “I thought it was getting ready to print,” the mayor weakly replies.

The mayor then throws a press conference to cover this critical matter—as you do—and reveals that the printer formerly known as Prince will be going to a better place. Or rather, the bottom of the Willamette River. Again, this works because MacLachlan never betrays a moment of anger or even repressed anger, opting instead for a cheerful commitment to what seems like a good idea at the moment. (Winner of best delivery this week is his deadpan reaction to the cameras: “Well, that didn’t go the way I planned.”) And he’s also not ignorant of the consequences of his actions, stepping down immediately as mayor and putting Fred on the spot to stammer his way through a closing statement.

Wendt’s reporter character is absent from the press conference, but that’s because he’s got problems of his own, as the Tribune has succumbed to budgetary pressures and been purchased by a social media entity called LinxPDX. New owners Craig and Trudy feel that journalism is irrelevant in a world where people only read the fifth word, and are determined to rework the paper into an entity that entices the commenters with nipple slip or sideboob. “Think of yourself as less of a journalist, more of a link-alist,” Craig helpfully suggests to the staff. “People don’t want to read articles any more and we don’t want to provide things people don’t care about.” As someone who likes to think their work is read with as much attention as it’s written, this one hit painfully close to home, as did Wendt’s resignation at his magnum opus under the new regime: “Charlize Theron NSFW.” Portlandia is all about the shallowness of certain trends, but I appreciate when it also pulls off an uncomfortable honesty in pointing out that they’re still trendy despite the shallowness.

In another embrace of continuity, Peter and Nance’s dream to open a bed and breakfast makes another appearance, as their house now has doilies adorning all free surfaces and even the plant life. But a town that treats brunch as seriously as Portland does is even more serious about its B&Bs, and regardless of how it’s decorated it needs to earn certification by containing all of the expected inconveniences. Armisen and Brownstein’s greatest strength in Portlandia is the straight-faced nature they bring to clearly insane requests, and they observe the rules of kitsch as a serious test, positioning stuffed animals and tearing out their eyes in ways that nudge up to creepy but remain on the right side. (Armisen in particular gets good mileage out of bouncing up and down on the squeaky step so many times it crosses over into crazy behavior.) And the final certification—awarded thanks to Nance’s appropriation of the hand soaps as cookies—means that we could be headed for the most awkward B&B experience this side of Bob’s Burgers.

“Off The Grid” is also successful because it manages to finally get some satisfying use out of its musical guests, as Dave Longstreth, Amber Coffman, and Haley Dekle of Dirty Projectors and J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. all stop by for the Battle Of The Gentle Bands. It’s a one-note joke, but it’s a joke that the writers find plenty of permutations on, with band names like Featherwash and Bless The Barn, musicians so determined to be quiet that they send their lead guitarists several yards off stage and don’t use amplifiers (“We don’t want to harm any insects”) and close songs by kissing bells. The ending is also one of those classic Portlandia left-field closers, as the prize for winning turns out to be tickets to a monster truck show, which leaves the winning musician Franny Wisp mute in horror.

The sketch featuring Armisen and Brownstein as gutter punks who uncover an ancient lost cat ad buried on a flyer-studded pole isn’t a particularly ambitious one, but it’s one that I enjoy for its simplicity. It’s a simple, contained narrative, allowing for some good moments as they follow the mystery of the missing Choo-Choo through research at the library—stopping periodically to yell “Does anyone have a dime?!” when the microfilm machine times out—and channeling CSI: Portland when they use aging software to see what the cat looks like now. (Aided by one character’s aunt, who cheerfully asks “So how are you doing with your gutter lifestyle?”) And it closes in a surprisingly upbeat fashion considering it’s in a pet cemetery, as it turns out Choo-Choo’s owner would be happy to give them a ride to Sacramento and they celebrate with a drum circle.

The narrative sketch also ends happily as the mayor has fled to a small firm outside of town to enjoy his retirement amongst the goats, complete with chin beard and deliberately slow accent. He unsurprisingly radiates positivity in his new setting, even as his descriptions make the living conditions come across as less than stellar. “Kerosene has a very specific smell indoors. Too much and you just fall right on your back. That’s happened a couple times. I fainted, and the goats revived me!” Portlandia doesn’t get out outside the city limits much—trips to a Jason Sudeikis-headed cult aside—and it’s nice to see the show push deeper into the more rustic parts of the universe. And for its ambassador, it’s hard to think of anyone better suited than the man who once famously asked “Sheriff, what kind of fantastic trees have you got growing around here?”

Especially given that his job isn’t his any more, as the keys to the city have been handed over to a new mayor. That mayor? The domestic goddess herself, Roseanne Barr. While we knew she was going to be on the show this season, to put her in such a prominent role is a pretty damn major revelation, and it’s deploy it masterfully by throwing out the first “To Be Continued...” in the show’s history, and queuing up the closing credits done Roseanne-style. In an episode stuffed full of quality sketches, it’s a pleasant surprise to see “Off The Grid” end on such a strong note, and promise even more to come next week.

Stray observations:

  • This week from the Portland Milk Advisory Board: evidently cashew milk is made in the highly contentious political environment of Nigeria, and can no longer be endorsed. So now, it’s radish milk, a choice not even Royce can sell without qualifications. “I’m not sure if we’re supposed to shake the bottle. We threw this together really quickly.” The Board is running out of ideas but I hope the writers aren’t, because these are the sketches I look forward to the most every week.
  • Follow-up from last week’s episode: The Portland Nerd Council PSA whose earnestness I was unsure of has been making the rounds online, earning positive feedback from the community and even garnering a Patton Oswalt endorsement. It looks like the writers were going for sincerity after all, and even if I still think it doesn’t fit the Portlandia mold, in hindsight I feel more positive towards the finished product and I’m glad it’s getting circulated outside the show.
  • The episode opens with another stop-motion sketch, this one looking like what Henry Selick would do if he worked in Play-Doh, as the fish of Portland’s rivers react to the plastic bag ban. It doesn’t go as well as you’d expect. “There goes my bag castle! Bullshit.”
  • The mayor’s ringtone is a reggae song, a nice callback to the first scandal that rocked his administration all the way back in “Mayor Is Missing.”
  • Apparently Portland’s mayoral residence is the house from Up.
  • Sideboob is indeed a valid strategy to drive up hits. Just ask my Revolution commenters.
  • To test Craig’s theory, I’ve embedded a secret message in every fifth word of this review. If you can decipher it, you earn a prize. (Actual prizes not guaranteed.)
  • “The way you’re touching those goats, that’s what Portland needs.”