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‘Portlandia’ Episode 4 “Pull-Out King” Review: Strong Premises Lose Momentum

Sometimes when a comedy has targeted a very specific niche and succeeds at turning out material relevant primarily for that niche, the show loses sight of what appeals to everyone – plain old, funny jokes. Portlandia in “Pull Out King” focuses on polishing premises about middle-aged yuppies tailgating Prairie Home Companion so much so that they seem to have forgotten how to just deliver laughs.

Given the limited amount of time sketch shows have to tell a story, the underlying premise not only needs to be funny, but more importantly it needs to be simple. The Portlandia Season 2 finale where Carrie and Fred run into increasingly strange and unprecedented obstacles while trying to get into Portland’s coveted new brunch spot harnesses the confusion and contrasts it with the mundanity of going to brunch, but this episode’s sketches are instead irritatingly windy without a payoff.

Perhaps the cold open sketch about a man waking up from a coma he had been in since 1986 just didn’t land with me as I don’t have a firsthand experience with the ’80s, but I think the sketch struggled mainly because it just wasn’t sure what it wanted to be. The now middle-aged man wakes up from his coma and goes on a rampage yelling “yuppies” at all the yuppies of Portland. The idea that Portland is constituted entirely of yuppies in denial is sort of the premise of the entire show, but the joke runs dry by the end of the sketch. The man in the coma ultimately ends up playing music with homeless people, played by Carrie and Fred, who don’t appear to be yuppies or have any bearing on the heretofore established plot. Endings do not have to be predictable, in fact it is best when they are not, but they do have to fit into the internal logic of the sketch instead of veering off track inexplicably.

The narrative sketch is an unfortunate reprisal of what might be my least favorite characters on the show, Lance and Nina, where Nina thinks she’s pregnant – challenging Lance’s notion that he is the Pullout King. Again, the premise of a pullout king sounds like comedic gold, but the main characters are so completely unlikable it’s hard to empathize with their problems enough to care where the story heads. Fred’s Nina is a shrill and vapid woman who talks incessantly while Lance is pretty much just an archetypal macho douchebag. The sketch plays out predictably with the two learning more about parenthood until the story veers off to Jeff Goldblum playing the Pull Out King, of pullout sofas. The sketch harkens back to a SNL sketch from years ago called Sofa King that too worked on double entendres and furniture commercials. That sketch, however, succeeded in its simplicity whereas this sketch exhausted the joke potential of saying pull out king pretty early. The only moment that really landed for me was the bit of physical comedy that would make Jim Carrey proud – where Lance and Nina try to have sex on a pull out couch they bought that can’t be completely unfurled because the apartment’s too small.

Two more of the sketches in this show succeeded due to tangential factors. A middle-aged Carrie and Fred tailgate Prairie Home Companion, a live radio show popular with (yuppie) public radio enthusiasts. That sketch is edited increasingly quickly as the two get increasingly raucous each hour counting down to the event – until Fred falls asleep. The ending was as abrupt as that. It felt like there should be another scene afterwards to really end it, but instead the ending killed the momentum built up from the two acting out every middle-aged, yuppie fantasy. Similarly a sketch where Fred forgets to respond to a friend’s baby notification until ten years later began with some action, but ended with a long discussion between Fred and the redheaded boy we have seen in such sketches as the Rube Goldberg machine and more recently “Ecorterrorists”. The sketch was framed as a sort of thriller race against the clock spoof, but then again the momentum is undercut with the boy berating Fred for his poor life choices. Luckily, here the boy delivers his lines with such an ear for comedic timing, the subpar content is almost irrelevant.

The final sketch is a hipster Carrie dating a square, tax lawyer which might be my favorite of the episode because it features an intervention, a la the A&E show, to dissuade the tax lawyer from trying to join a band in an effort to be cooler. The underlying sentiment rings true to all the goobers, like myself, who watch Portlandia and wish they were half as cool as Carrie or Fred. The tax lawyer presents a fresh look of someone who hasn’t been sucked into the Portland-life as depicted in the show, which is a refreshing change of pace. When the tax lawyer ultimately puts on a staged theater version of his tax law business to rave reviews, the surreal ending finally fits the sketch.

All in all, not horrible television but inconsistent enough that at the end you feel disappointed at all the squandered potential.