The commonly accepted belief that it never stops raining in Portland during the winter months is entirely true. It may not always be raining heavily, but the dark, grey clouds and the damp atmosphere are never far away, to the point that when September or October are drier than usual it only inspires Portland residents like myself to mutter about how it’ll take an extra month for spring to finally start. And worst of all, it’s not even an exciting kind of rain, no thunder or lightning and almost no wind, just an oppressive mood that encourages one to keep the wine supply ample and set an extra alarm in the morning.
As such, it’s surprising that it took Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein this long to poke fun at the concept on Portlandia. The cold open of “Winter In Portlandia” presents the city as a grim, post-apocalyptic setting where eight months of rain dominate, and only one elusive patch of sunlight exists at a time. This sketch is Portlandia in its best creative mode, when it takes one true quirk of Portland living—the almost desperate need to get outside on days when the sun actually appears—and extrapolates it into absurdity. In this case, the absurdity is a roaming beach party of residents who break out the grills and beach chairs any minute a space of more than five square feet is exposed to daylight, sitting in traffic and plowing over fences zombie horde-style to get to it. (Best line of the sketch comes from a perfectly deadpan Brownstein: “I’m so excited to not be depressed for six months.”)
After that sketch however, the effects of the season are taken out save an occasional reference to sun lamps and winter diets, and what you’re left with is a fairly standard episode of Portlandia. Despite being presented as an ostensible holiday special and airing a few weeks before the show’s third-season première, “Winter In Portlandia” plays more like a reintroduction to the show’s universe, revisiting recurring motifs like cyclical hipsterdom, self-involved self-righteousness, and a loose relationship with reality. It’s a little disappointing, particularly after July’s “Brunch Special” toyed with the idea of a more narrative quasi-sitcom format for the show—but if reintroduction is its goal it does accomplish that. The episode is full of recurring favorite characters, and a couple of guest stars liven things up without being overwhelming. Most importantly, the sketches hit more than they miss.
The episode’s runner centers on Peter and Nance, the former of whom is worried he’s putting on weight and decides that cutting pasta out of his diet is the best way to do so. Of course, being people who take their food seriously—this is the same couple who wound up in a cult trying to establish their chicken dinner’s pedigree—the excision of one food group flips the switch and turns Peter into an addict, a swift devolution Armisen plays wonderfully. By the second day he’s secretly looking at cooking websites and slamming the laptop shut when Nance enters. (She is of course horrified, which gives Brownstein her second best line of the episode: “This is demeaning. This is demeaning to pasta!”). By the third day he’s hidden bags of noodles in the toilet tank, and by the fourth he’s walking the streets in despair, munching on raw spaghetti and staring longingly through windows at people having dinner, eventually hitting rock-bottom with a carbohydrate binge in a cheap motel room.
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Again, this is a sketch that operates in Portlandia’s best mode, taking one idea and spinning it out into absurdity. The path continues down its logical illogical course with Peter committing himself to rehab and weaning himself off pasta via red cabbage, which is evidently the methadone of the food pyramid. Sadly, like many sketches on the show it ends fairly abruptly, when a random voice of reason tells him that electroshock therapy may be a step too far and he’s better off returning to his normal diet. (Though possibly without desserts, a move that sends Nance into her own hysterics.)
We also see the return of the Women & Women First bookstore, this time when Candace’s hereto unmentioned son Robert shows up with his three-month old son, who Candace neglected to mention to Toni. He asks them to watch the baby for a while (“We’re watching it right now,” Toni points out) and from there it turns into a full-bore awkward conversation about the store’s “vagina pillows,” Candace’s warped ideas on raising children and the duo’s adamant refusal to acknowledge gender in even themselves. Both Candace and Toni are so well-developed by this point that they can just be turned loose, and the improvised feeling of the conversation allows for some hilarious and truly unsettling tangents. (Particularly if, like me, you find the term “vagina pillow” inherently amusing. Robert: “We have 13 vagina pillows. My bed looks like a bunch of women just exploded on it.” Candace: “That’s one room. So there’s other rooms you could…”)
While this particular sketch loses steam once Robert leaves—the two refuse to look while changing the baby as a statement of gender blindness and wind up urine-soaked for their efforts—the introduction of Robert opens up a new field of potential for future sketches. Candace and Toni are unsettling enough when they’re in control of their own store, but the prospect of giving them family members opens up a whole new level of insanity. Something made them the way they are, and it’s also a safe bet that they’re something that made other people the way they are.
Our third Armisen/Brownstein couple for the episode is the return of Bryce and Lisa, and their newest creative business venture, the Outlet Motel. Like virtually all of their ideas, this one is motivated by one poorly thought concept—power outlets are scarce at motels, so let’s add all the power outlets—and winds up translating into a malfunctioning power grid and $400 hotel bills because of the power costs. It’s broader and less catchy than painting birds or pickling everything, but still works because it continues to push the duo’s blind commitment to their ideas, and the barely restrained tension between the two when it comes to making said ideas work. (Plus, Bryce has glasses now!)
The focus on various incarnations of Armisen and Brownstein keeps the episode relatively grounded for a Portlandia installment, with guest stars contained to their own sketches. One of these focuses on a new food cart, Stu’s Stews, run by Stu and his friend Donald, played respectively by Matt Lucas and the always welcome Jim Gaffigan. They’ve yet to have any customers in six days, a move Donald credits to the cold. (“Maybe it’s like stew weather, and then it’s so cold, I don’t want stew, I just want a blanket.” Stu: “I think you can’t eat a blanket.”) Unsurprisingly for a comedian who’s built a career on food jokes, Gaffigan carries this sketch as Donald tries to drum up business, noting that it’s hard to build a customer base when your free tastes sound like “stool samples.” Of the new concepts introduced this episode, the food cart should slot nicely into the show’s universe, and hopefully it’ll serve as a setting in future sketches.
There’s also a brief appearance by Jack White as a sort of silent Christmas spirit, at the end of the sketch about a recording studio constructed by a mustachioed Armisen who’s entirely too excited at the sound he gets and anxious about how much he spent. White’s cameo aside, this one drags out a little too long, Armisen’s increasing references to how much it has that Pet Sounds vibe running a little thin after a while, and the bit with the echo chamber only working a bit. The fact that he’s playing off a silent partner in Bobby Moynihan doesn’t help, as it starts to feel desperate—and not in an entertaining way.
Again, it’s somewhat surprising that “Winter In Portlandia” doesn’t turn out to be a holiday special, but honestly Portlandia doesn’t seem like the type of show that would support one. The universe of Portlandia is by definition one that avoids serious emotional stakes, emphasis on tradition or hearts growing three sizes that day. These are people who would care about the holiday only in relationship to them, so it’s probably better Armisen and Brownstein avoided trying to force treacle into this world. As such, “Winter In Portlandia” manages to be a welcome reminder of just how entertaining the show's sense of humor remains, and when it returns full-time in January, I’ll be glad to have it back as another distraction from the long, grey days.
- The cold open ends with an entirely random bit of two pigeons on a wire, where one encourages them to fly south before a random man takes it away, and the second one poops. An odd moment that comes and goes so quickly you almost convince yourself you imagined it.
- Also, there’s a sketch involving nap time at the office complete with nanny, and a boss who eats himself into a food coma. Not funny or interesting enough to warrant any further discussion.
- With Peter’s downward spiral, there’s a sadly missed opportunity for Aaron Paul to have a cameo appearance as a noodle pusher.
- Candace’s drink of the moment: sort of an unsweetened maple syrup.
- Stu’s explanation for being born in West Virginia and having an English accent: “I watch Downton Abbey.”
- Nance: “I didn’t know what to tell people. I said you were on a really long canoe trip!” Peter: “This journey I’ve been on is a canoe trip! And the river is pasta. And I’m not getting wet.”