Having watched Portlandia regularly for going on four seasons, I’m used to a certain level of inconsistency on a week-to-week basis. With between six and 10 sketches per episode, the odds are good that at least one of the sketches won’t be innovative, won’t make me laugh or will give off the feeling of being thrown in to reach the full 22-minute mark. And that’s perfectly fine. The ratio of sketches that hit to the ones that miss has always been on the side of the former, and the weaker installments are never offensively bad enough that they sour the rest of the show—even at their worst, you tend to forget about them once they’re over.
That level of conditioning is part of what makes “Spyke Drives” such a standout episode of Portlandia, because for the first time in recent memory, none of the sketches is a drag. And more remarkably, they’re some of the strongest offerings the show’s put out this season, full of everything they do well and doing so with ease. There’s social satire, there are surreal twists, there are nods to the continuity of their version of Portland, and there’s the return of beloved guest star Kyle MacLachlan as the city’s ultra-affable mayor. If you’re making an argument to someone that they should watch the show and you decided to offer a single episode rather than a collection of sketches, “Spyke Drives” serves as a solid Exhibit A.
The episode starts out swinging with a sketch about nebbish couple Peter and Nance, the latter of whom sprains her ankle trying to get out of the rain and insists that Peter drive her to the hospital. The degree of uptightness that Fred Armisen exhibits in the Peter character is one of the show’s most reliable comedy delivery mechanisms—his recurring bed-and-breakfast plot was a particularly memorable part of season three—and seeing him deal with driving in Portland is predictably fun, as his milquetoast personality can’t handle a single aspect of traffic. (Full disclosure: I’ve owned a car in Portland for the last six years and have had to grow accustomed to all the streets Peter stalls at, so this one rang very close to home.) He yields right of way to every other car, misses every stoplight, and drives so slowly a limping Nance can pass him—it’s frustrating enough to lead Nance to call him a “fucking pussy,” one of the most overt explosions of the seething frustration underneath most of the show’s characters.
But what’s noticeable about this excursion is that it doesn’t just poke fun at driving in Portland; it serves as a meeting of worlds. Spyke appears in the middle of the road, his quest for “bicycle rights” having turned into a full-scale protest (with bongos present for some reason), and the image of Armisen arguing with Armisen comes into play. The context of all of Armisen and Brownstein’s alternates existing in the same city has been touched on in episodes like “Brunch Special” and “Blackout,” but those tend to be special occasions, so seeing it here is a treat. Most encouragingly, they keep the ball rolling as the runner sketch follows Spyke on a distressing quest and he winds up calling Lance for assistance, creating the first couple swap in Portlandia history. (And given how fresh it feels for these two characters to interact, this may be a course of action the show would be well-served to follow in future episodes.)
The quest Spyke’s set on is nothing less than a betrayal of his way of life. His job delivering t-shirts has gotten so busy he can’t transport them on his bike anymore, and if he doesn’t get a car, the only alternative is his boss hires Wayne to do so. (Which he can’t do, because he’s literally the dumbest person you’ve ever met.) Spyke and Lance head for the dealership, where the dealer is yet another Kumail Najiani character, and the sequence essentially turns into all three actors just riffing their way through a car lot. And it’s an excellent series of riffs, ranging from the biodiesel car (“Constantly smells like french fries. Which is either good or bad, depending...”), the Jeep that leads Nanjiani to demonstrate the “WOOOOO!!!” vibe they’re going for, and the muscle car that Lance practically makes love to and the “classic art” car covered in figurines (“I don’t want anything I drive to make a statement!”).
Spyke finally selects a car that costs “some boring number” and appears to be happy with it starting out—and of course that’s where the trouble restarts. Spyke can’t exist in a state of contentment, he needs to find a target to lash out at (or declare as over), and it doesn’t take long for his cry for bicycle rights to turn into a cry for driving rights. It’s a fun return to the vibe of that early sketch that manages to build on the framework to epic protest scale (this one also featuring bongos for some reasons), and that also offers a sweet narrative close as Iris is able to talk him down and convince him to go for a walk. Said walk does lead to a cry for pedestrian rights, but that means the sketch closes on exactly the tight tone.
Each of the other sketches is similarly solid, full of delightful leaps of logic. As I said above, this week also marks MacLachlan’s first appearance in season four, and he remains as welcome a presence in this world as ever. Stopping by Fred and Carrie’s largely unsuccessful garage sale, he’s full of praise for every bit of junk they’re trying to sell, but not so much so that he’s willing to pay full price. (On a Walkman: “And there’s no disc inside.” Fred: “But it opens!” Carrie: “There’s nothing outdated about a CD.”) The twist ending where the two walk into the Mayor’s new Y2K Cafe manages to be both a riff on how everyone has the same stuff in their garage and the prevalence of curio-based eateries, and it’s held together as always by MacLachlan’s overwhelming good cheer. (And his delivery of the last line about the cafe: “Food’s bad.”)
On the other side of town, Doug and Claire are still experiencing relationship trouble after the hot tub fiasco of “Sharing Finances,” and things have literally gone to the dogs. Once a frustrated Doug points out that the dog gets more affection than either of them, they get the idea to start treating each other as they would the dog, an amusing sequence that would make a solid B-plot on a sitcom. (Exhibit A for that argument: The League’s hysterical season three premiere.). Of the week’s offerings, it’s the slightest, but still eminently watchable as Armisen and Brownstein do a series of physical riffs as they act and treat each other like animals with treats and cuddles. And as with Spyke, a change of scenery doesn’t change core behavior, as Claire soon after raps Doug with a rolled-up paper for inviting Tom and Stacy to dinner: “Tom only talks about bitcoins, and Stacy only wants to talk to me about her new line of jeans!”
There’s equally odd behavior around Portland’s music scene. St. Vincent’s Annie Clark, seen last week encouraging Carrie’s new boyfriend not to leave the glamorous tax preparation life, is now playing a show at the Star Club where a mustache-sporting Armisen wants to ask her questions about her equipment. It’s a standard take on the awkward post-show conversation music buffs have with musicians, except this one pushes behavior to robotic levels as he takes the conversation backstage to ask similar questions about increasingly asinine topics: “What’s that, some pretzels? What’s that your shoes? What’s that, outside?” Clark is a fairly minor presence in the sketch as she ducks him two-thirds of the way through, leading to a cul-de-sac of tormenting a bus driver until the affair comes to a stop.
If that sketch pushes things into a surreal place, it’s got nothing on the dinner party sketch, where a particularly long-winded version of Armisen regales his guests with travel stories. The world of the pretentious dinner party is well-trodden territory for Portlandia, but this one finds a new spin on it by sending the party to medieval times. Not the restaurant, literal medieval times, as all of a sudden the party’s transplanted into a banquet hall and everyone’s in full royal garb. This allows the party to end, as I’m sure we’ve all wanted to end parties, stabbing the guest in black robes and transitioning into a minstrel-backed gala. It doesn’t make a bit of sense in any context, but like so much of “Spyke Drives,” the execution (pun not intended) is so well done it overwhelms concerns. Silly, visually innovative and often insightful, this entire episode is Portlandia doing what it does best.
This Week In Portland: Familiar streets traveled this week include Hawthorne, Mississippi and the corner of McClellan and Denver for the final showdown between bikes and drivers. I’m also sure I’ve attended a dozen Portland garage sales that offered the exact same selection as Fred and Carrie’s.
Portland Pet Haven Pet of the Week: Rascal returns from last week, having been returned by his old owners for reasons that unsettle James. “He was able to find a baby’s crib. Way upstairs.”
It’s a shame Spyke and Lance didn’t try buying their car from the Car Czar. He knows what cars are!
It makes total sense to me that Eric Clapton signs guitars for the sole purpose of having them hang in memorabilia cafes.
“Should we go inside? I think I felt the teeniest drop of rain.”
“Wine is sort of the road sign to travel. The sort of passport to another world. And we’re all the damn same.”
“If you want to commit a crime, this is a great car to do it in, because how would you describe it? You can’t.”
“Yeah, that’s a horn. Sort of like the sound of that, very outgoing.”
“We want our own lane, for cars!” “The fact that there are roads sort of implies that they’re for cars.”