Fans of Portlandia were recently given the news that the shows seventh season, which premiered tonight, would be its second last (note: I originally said it would be the last season. That was the result of misinterpreting an article about the show coming to an end. My bad,). After watching “The Storytellers,” one can’t help but wonder why Carrie and Fred are packing things in so soon. While you could make the argument that a sketch show about how people in Portland are kinda quirky and hipster-y should have grown tiresome by now, that’s just not the case. The show’s array of wacky characters can still be quite entertaining, and this was a sure-footed, and often hilarious episode.
The episode begins with an appearance from Run The Jewels, fresh off pleasantly surprising us with the release of their third album. Sure enough, the sketch focuses on the modern phenomenon of the sudden, unexpected album drop from a major artist. Killer Mike and El-P are mostly deadpan as two music execs present them with ideas like faking El-P’s death, and dropping the album at the bottom of the well Baby Jessica fell into. The sketch works partly because both members of RTJ have strong comedic timing, but also because if we’re being honest, it can be frustrating having so many major acts drop albums out of nowhere instead of giving us a release date to look forward to, and the elaborate stunts involved with some of these releases can be a bit much. Popstar made a similar point about this by mocking U2’s disastrous album launch, and the sentiment works here, too.
From there, we go into the episode’s main thread, Fred and Carrie playing two people who are hopelessly unskilled at telling stories. This plot is broken into three separate sketches that air over the course of the episode. In the first segment, we see Fred embarrass himself while telling a story about not realizing what pocket he put his passport in, then making reference to an “abortion story,” which ends part one on a rather abrupt note.
Later on, the couple realize they need help being entertaining at parties, so they enlist the help of an acting class instructor and former identity thief played by Claire Danes, who is the biggest revelation of the episode, as her eccentric character completely steals the sketch. She has the two act out role-playing scenarios, then destroys things each time they screw up, which, of course, is often. This show has long been known for having memorable appearances by surprising celebrities, and Danes’ brilliant performance certainly fits that bill.
The third part of the saga — which closes the episode — sees Carrie and Fred try out their new storytelling techniques on their friends. At first, it works brilliantly, as they’ve added lots of extra touches and special effects to make things more powerful, and the dinner guests respond positively. Unfortunately, they are done in by one fatal flaw: their story still lacks a satisfying ending. The humor in this trilogy was often subtle, but effective nonetheless. Anyone’s who’s ever struggled to be interesting when spending time with a group of friends could be find something relateable from these segments, and Danes revealed some strong comedic chops.
Elsewhere, we get a two-parter about Vanessa Bayer checking into the world’s most awkward hotel. In the first segment, Armisen plays a concierge who insists on describing the function of literally everything in the room, including the bathrobes. This segment couldn’t help but remind me of The Simpsons episode “Mountain Of Madness,” where Mr. Burns explains to Homer that “this doorknob, properly turned, will provide access to the cabin.” Bayer quickly grows impatient with the overexplanation, and asks him to leave, only to realize she never got the wi-fi password. Oh, the brutal irony.
Later, she faces an even weirder experience when dealing with Doro, the room service attendant, who claims to be from Portland despite having an accent that I couldn’t quite place (I could use some help here, commenters). He slowly unwraps everything she ordered, and Bayer once again has to deal with the question of how to politely tell him to stop. These sketches don’t quite give us the ultimate payoff we might be hoping for, but Bayer’s deadpan skills as she reacts to ridiculousness around her are more than enough to make it worthwhile.
Elsewhere, we get an appearance from everyone’s favorite goths, Vince and Jacqueline. This time around, they have to go to the decidedly un-goth world of Bed, Bath & Beyond to by a vacuum cleaner, and perhaps some kitchen appliances. In theory, this idea shouldn’t work so well; the idea of “put goths in normal, un-gothic places” is a fairly obvious premise. The sketch works anyway, however, mostly because of how hilarious it is everytime Vince yells “JAMIE!” at the end. Also, Jamie’s reaction when they explain that the want to buy a frying pan so they can cook blood is pretty great. The concept here wasn’t especially novel, but the execution was nearly flawless.
The best sketch of the episode, however, was easily Germy, a hairy toy that gives children exposure to germs at an early age for the purpose of building up immunities. This sketch was a shot at the ever-changing medical trends that parents often blindly follow, but what really made it work was the Germy lab, where hipster beard hair is harvested to make the dolls, so that your children can be exposed to both rural and urban germs. It was a brilliantly absurd sketch, and it ranks among the sharpest satire the show has ever done.
Portlandia had to come to an end at sometime, and if the first episode of its penultimate season is any indication, it will leave while still in its prime. Run The Jewels and Claire Danes both turned in highly enjoyable guest spots, while the show’s glorious weirdness is as effective as ever. This won’t go down as an all-time great episode of Portlandia but it served notice that after seven seasons, it hasn’t lost any of the charm that made it a hit in the first place.
Hi everybody, I’ll be reviewing Portlandia this season, taking over for Les Chapell. I’ve been a fan of this show for sometime, and it’ll be a thrill to give my thoughts on each week.
-”Can I keep the rest of the beard?” “I’m a pediatrician, not a barber.”
-Am I the only one who thinks El-P looks like a James Murphy/James Corden hybrid?