Out of all the sketch comedy shows on the air right now, Portlandia is certainly the most musical one. Its creative minds Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein are known as much for their musical talents as they are for their comedic ones—bandleader for Seth Meyers and lead guitarist for Sleater-Kinney respectively—and the show’s set in a city with a musical culture that both breeds and attracts musicians. Over the last four years there’s been a steady stream of well-known musicians stopping by the show, with appearances by artists such as Aimee Mann, Colin Meloy, Eddie Vedder, Joanna Newsom, No Doubt, J Mascis, and Duff McKagan.
However, despite being a show rich with musical inspiration there’s not a lot of original music proper around Portlandia. Yes, there’s the “Dream of the 90s” song that opened the series, its 1890s successor and a few other scattered moments throughout four seasons, but there’s not much in the way of performances for a show that has the talent and muscle to offer up at least one original number per episode. Few of the musicians who stop by the show wind up playing their instruments, mostly there to react with bemusement to the oddities surrounding them or play along with a straight face.
“Bahama Knights” is the most overtly musical episode of Portlandia to date. It’s not a musical episode proper (though that’s an idea they might want to consider in the future) but one where the acts of making music, listening to music, and thinking about music run through every sketch. While the alchemy of music to comedy isn’t calibrated exactly right—too much emphasis on the former keeps the latter from succeeding as well as last week’s episode—there’s some promising notes delivered here that indicate the creative team should try mining this source more often.
The runner sketch is the strongest one this week, with a look at the rock star past of “stuttercup” Peter. Peter apparently used to play percussion in a band called Bahama Knights along with his ex-wife Anita (Armisen’s former Saturday Night Live costar Maya Rudolph) and the news that they’re playing a show in Portland motivates Nance to encourage him to make contact again. Armisen and Rudolph always enjoyed a great rapport together on SNL, and it’s fun to see them reunite and fall back into that improvisational vein as the former spouses try to recreate old patterns. Adding Brownstein into the mix as the current spouse only makes things more fun, an interaction where simultaneously no one feels bad and everyone wants to assert dominance. (Anita: “I wish we’d had kids together.” Peter: “Yeah. What happened with that?” Nance: “Well, I came along!” Anita: “Yeah, that’s pretty much what happened.”)
The plot thickens once Peter’s called up on stage to join the band (which also includes folk music duo Tuck & Patti) and he finds himself swept away on the tour bus. Of the Armisen/Brownstein couples, Peter and Nance are the ones it’s easiest to take seriously, or at least to put in sketches that are more complicated than the show’s usual offerings.The mix of neuroses and genuine affection these characters have for each other make them easier to root for as a team, and their placid demeanor makes wild adventures—pasta addictions, a quest for brunch that lands them in a Mad Max-style internment camp, a quest to build the most up-to-code B&B possible—even more fun than if it was say Lance and Nina. Here, Peter’s newly found joy at finding a new life makes Nance’s stranded existence all the more tragic, his wild and distant Skype sessions juxtaposed with her lonely day-to-day life.
This degree of loss makes her move to win Peter back all the more epic, even though it’s largely ridiculous. Brownstein and Armisen sing a song about the importance of banana daiquiri proportions that may as well be shot against a karaoke backdrop, with Rudolph going over the top in her inimitable way in front of a elderly crowd in loud shirts. It’s a show that proves Portlandia could stand to offer up more shows, because this is clearly a fun exercise for everyone involved (even if I’ve yet to find a resume that argues more for one banana in a standard daiquiri).
Of the standalone sketches, the most successful one of the night features Jeff Tweedy making his Portlandia debut as an artist trying to craft his latest song and Armisen/Brownstein playing a pair of recording executives micromanaging each lyric. It’s an illustration of how the search for “authenticity” in music can wind up killing a lot of music, the executives trying to push Tweedy to find his own stories (“Forget about the crooked train unless you’ve been on a crooked train!”). Once again Tweedy’s not asked to do much other than play along with bemusement, but he’s a good sport about it and even gets a chance to perform once he creates a song about the battery being out in his smoke alarm. (A song I would totally listen to in its entirety, which raises the question why Portlandia hasn’t had every musical guest contribute a track and release the album at the end of the season.)
Other sketches are less successful, largely because they’re less about finding humor in shared music experiences as they are about providing a list of said experiences. The opening concert sketch is mostly Fred and Carrie dealing with everything that people are annoyed by in concerts, (blocked views, long lines and an inability to move in the crowd), finding peace in the quiet of their home, and sacrificing that peace after 30 seconds because Prince tickets are on sale. The sketch doesn’t have enough tone or focus for the punchline to land with any impact, and is more observational than it is comedic.
The sketch about Fred’s desire to make a Beatles documentary falls flat for similar reasons. The obvious joke is that everyone’s told the story of the Beatles so many times there’s no new way to tell it, and the humor’s designed to come from how earnest and oblivious Fred is to that reality (“All of a sudden it’s the sixties, and you see all these random things!”). The buildup lacks the absurdist explosion the sketch should have, as everyone involved is more interested in gently humoring Fred than getting caught up in his mania. Some of it is salvaged by the extreme ending where he flies to Apple HQ and tries to buy the Beatles catalog for 50 bucks—another instance of his being willing to fly internationally on a whim—but in the end it’s only good for a light chuckle when he bites into an apple and a moment of orchestral inspiration dies out.
Funnily enough, the standalone sketch that works the best is the one whose relationship to music is tangential at best. Armisen and Brownstein find themselves at a party that splits on gender lines, and both groups rapidly fall into distinct patterns: the men speak in tones befitting a Renaissance faire, while the women use the word “rock” to replace every conceivable noun and verb. Here’s a point where the pacing works: the sketch offers up a sense of familiarity with running gags at parties, stretches it out to absurdity, and then snaps back to reality when the departing couple admits they didn’t know anyone at that party. Plus, it’s an affair where people get tutted, and let’s be honest, there’s not enough of that on TV these days.
- This Week In Portland: In addition to the return of the Star Club, Fred and Carrie attend a show at the Crystal Ballroom in the opening sketch and Bahama Knights plays their closing concert on the Cathedral Park stage. (Amusingly, the band photos taken earlier when the group is ostensibly on world tour are clearly taken no more than a hundred yards from that stage.)
- No Pet Haven sketches this week. Looks like the shelter isn’t holding any dogs who can play the cello.
- The sketch where Armisen plays an authoritarian line monitor outside a concert hall offers up some laughs at seeing him play a highly extreme character, but is largely disposable.
- I would watch an entire episode about Anita, Peter, and Nance, enjoying a weird civility as they discuss films (on Titanic: “It sank! And it never came up”) and practice weird quasi-flirtation. Or at least more Maya Rudolph in some capacity, because she’s ridiculously talented.
- “That’s a loud celery.”
- “Our bouncers are bigger than you and they want to kick you out so bad!”
- “Has anyone in your family been in an oil fire, maybe a canola oil fire?”
- “The bananas represent a man and a woman.”