For a show that gets most of its laughs out of small-scale events—a feminist bookstore, karaoke nights, beach trips, various local businesses opening and closing—Portlandia has a marked taste for the epic in its finales. Beginning with season two’s “Brunch Special,” the season finales of Portlandia depend on raising the stakes far past Portland’s normal insular attitude, leaning more towards disaster movie than sketch comedy. To date, the city has been gripped by a massive blackout, almost swept aside by freak floods, and terrorized by a roaming band of arsonist kidnappers. They like to move beyond the pale, pushing their characters into ever more extreme circumstances and seeing how things shake out.
Season six closes out in a similar fashion, with once again the city of Portland beset by a dangerous threat. However, this time it feels like the setting has worked too hard to reach its extremes and make them cover the entire city. Much like the ramen dish that forms its centerpiece, “The Noodle Monster” is a satire made up of a lot of different ingredients—complicated Asian dining, NPR pledge drives, Finnish investors, and Japanese kaiju films. And while those ingredients manage to add up to something palatable and at times hits a truly delicious bite of a joke, it on the whole feels like a disparate bowl of noodles and meat and vegetables where it’s tough to get a bite of everything at once.
The soup of Portland’s destruction is mixed at an Asian restaurant, where tsukemen ramen is the latest popular dish, much to the consternation of Peter and Nance. This is the first time we’ve seen them this year—a consequence of the show’s approach to focusing on one pair of characters at a time—and absence makes the heart grow fonder as it feels good to finally see them again. These two have long been Portlandia’s most easily rattled couple, and they’re in prime comedic element with a meal that requires careful preparation. Even being given proper instruction by their server—Gregory Gourdet of Top Chef and Portland’s Departure restaurant—doesn’t assuage their discomfort, their insular worldview shattered by having to put more that two ingredients together, leading them to cobble together dumplings from noodles and ask asinine questions. (“The eggs are for breakfast tomorrow?”)
Events only get worse once they leave the restaurant, and Peter’s addiction to pasta becomes only the second-worst carbohydrate-related incident to befall the couple. Using the dipping sauce for non-dipping purposes turns out to be the equivalent of feeding the Mogwai after midnight, and the leftovers are birthed into a horrific abomination that takes to the streets. Back in “Shville” I mentioned that the community theater-level special effects of Fred’s journey to be an expatriate only made that sequence more endearing, and once again the low-budget noodle effects and CGI comes across as oddly delightful. It’s also helped by the fact that the biggest threat the monster poses is getting grease on people’s shirts, keeping the stakes on a similarly low scale.
However, while the monster terrorizing Portland has its merits, the plots surrounding it feel largely insubstantial. Going back to some other Portlandia finales, “Blackout” felt so epic because all of the stories going on were the culmination of the various dramas in season three, and “Brunch Special” managed to move seamlessly between its stories as it went up and down the never-ending line. The events of “The Noodle Monster” by contrast have an unfinished sketch feel to them, some loose scraps of story ideas—the Mayor luring a Nokia plant to Portland, Fred forgetting his phone at home, an NPR pledge drive—loosely connected by the city’s new major crisis. They’re all previously explored beats for the show, as opposed to ones that call the stakes of the episode into question.
While the beats here are previously explored, there are some good moments present there. The Finnish executives don’t truly register as characters, but it’s always fun to see Kyle MacLachlan try to sell the city to outsiders and flinch at anything that gets in the way of those efforts, and I defy you to find an actor who can ring a gong with the enthusiasm he musters here. And when the idea to push the monster into a pool of broth to destroy it, Fred and Carrie’s suggestion to find a bunch of frat guys to do that are good for a chuckle. As is the fact that Carrie’s phone was in her pocket at the same time she went into the pool, placing her in the same sad hand-tapping position as Fred.
The better moments of the episode, speaking to how successful this season has been at narrowing its focus to a single pair, are the ones that show Peter and Nance trying to deal with the disaster they’ve unleashed. Both of them never do well when put on the spot, so the scene of their press conference and the legion of things that they’re forced to apologize for escalates in the right way. (“Are you going to apologize to the apartment dwellers who you just left out? … Are you going to apologize to the rising rent?”) And showing a little backbone to the monster they created leaves Fred slurped up as well, Kath running alongside in distress.
“The Noodle Monster” also manages to pull things off in the end by tying the loose story noodles together to defeat the monster. All throughout the episode, NPR’s hosts are talking about the importance of “driveway moments” to proper reflection, and one of those moments—delivered by the ever-welcome dulcet tones of Marketplace’s Kai Ryssdal—is just the move needed to stop the monster in its tracks. (Even more rewarding, the hosts’ constant interjections about the pledge drive are as distracting in the show as they are in real life, breaking the spell at a crucial moment.) And when Nance realizes that consuming the monster properly is the only way to defeat it, she turns to the exact same series of “Asian-phile” videos that the Mayor was using to perfect his bow, leading her to slurp the gargantuan down.
While “The Noodle Monster” comes up as a lackluster close to the season, that’s at least partly attributed to the fact that it has to close a season that’s had some great and tightly focused episodes. While the comments have been mixed this is my favorite season of Portlandia since the third, the show embracing its advanced age by doubling down on its characters over making the same jokes about birds and brunch. Hopefully that’s a trend that will keep going for its final two seasons.
- This Week In Portland: For the best ramen in Portland, turn your attention to either Boxer Ramen or Boke Bowl. Or if you’re willing to venture into the suburbs of Beaverton, Yuzu is a well-hidden location that offers some truly stellar kakuni ramen.
- There was a lot of good stuff in season six of Portlandia, but some gaps too. For instance, any season without a Jeff Goldblum appearance will always be a sad one. And where was Spyke? He’s one of my favorite characters!
- Kyle MacLachlan having to deal with Finnish executives brings up many fond Twin Peaks memories of other Scandinavian investors running around in his orbit.
- Peter decides to clear some room in the fridge by finishing off the milk: “I’ll just drink it! … It’s like cottage cheese.”
- “The texts I want to return are not the important ones, but the ones where someone says hey what’s up, and I don’t want them to think I’m mad at them.”
- “I have an apology hangover right now.”
- “Oh, it’s like you just came out a womb!”
- And that’s the final helping of Portlandia coverage this year. See you in season seven!