in Television

‘Portlandia’ Season 3 Finale: The Show Can Do 30 Minute Stories Too!

Let’s get this out of the way, the plot’s specifics don’t make that much sense because the central government not paying their power would not trigger a city-wide blackout but as is the case with most sketch comedy, Portlandia’s strengths are not its impeccable plot construction. Instead of really addressing the logistics of the electricity outage, the show riffs on customer service which is always ripe for humor. The customer service representative explaining that “immediately means six business days later and today means tomorrow” was probably my biggest laugh all episode.

Just like the season’s finale before this one, Portlandia chose to tie the threads from all the season’s episodes together this episode. The show uses the blackout trope, often seen in comedies and dramas alike, to provide a single experience for all the characters we know and love to riff on. The show knows its strengths, a supreme understanding of surreal humor and Fred Armisen’s expert range, but perhaps the biggest of all is the city of Portland.

The show brought together its many disparate characters within the theme of hipsterdom all the while combining conventions of sitcoms and dramas. The biggest sitcom-y plot is the two roommates dating the same person thing, though in this case they are both dating the same roommate and are Carrie and Fred, turns that tired trope on its head for laughs. On the other end of the spectrum the birds signaling an impending apocalyptic event is a convention of dramatic films like Signs and is again used to comedic effect with Nance telling Peter how stupid he sounds for describing the barking cat he saw. Mixing all of that could get quite muddled along with combining the many different different plotlines, but in this case Portlandia did an amazing job blending the conventions and exploiting the humor inherent even in the drama.

I found the Birdman plotline stick out in my mind with this episode as it incorporates the common trope of a mysterious, outsider who manages to insert himself with the right, obscure knowledge and the right time – think Quint from Jaws. Here though Portlandia combines this with the cocky Crocodile Dundee type Australian man to adds to the hyperbole and show him acting like a con artist trying to bilk Nance and Peter out of a room. Luckily they never get carried away with the Birdman character pontificating and instead the show gets the cocksure Birdman (Bill Hader) and nebbish Peter together and the interplay between the two is hilarious. (“Name the Beatles.” “Neener?”)

I appreciate the show including the Milk Advisory Board Quick in a quick and dirty sketch about Royce’s girlfriend Tania who appears to be a Ring type girl, hitting the funny points without stretching on too long, something SNL still struggles with on occasion. The lovely women of Women and Women also make an appearance, though longer is still short enough we don’t get tired of them.

My main complaint is that the whole mayor part isn’t as funny as it could be, which is unfortunate because it is sort of the main story. The idea of him in some sort of survivalist cult just harkens back to the previous season’s finale where Fred and Carrie are forced to enter another enclave where Tim Robbins is the leader. The joke is fairly well executed, but come across as tired and not particularly consistent with the mayor’s character. Overall I would say this is a strong episode not just for the usual laughs, but for its ability to craft a story from sketches that don’t always lend themselves so well to narrative.