We were looking forward to this week’s Portlandia “Trail Blazers” episode as soon as we saw that our favorite feminist bookstore owners Toni (Carrie Brownstein) and Candace (Fred Armisen) were returning for only the second time this season. Expectations were raised even further with the casting of the Portland Trail Blazers’ basketball team and general manager Neil Olshey to guest star opposite the dynamic duo. And with the heavy promotion of the episode, culminating in the Portlandia and Trail Blazers’ Twitter takeovers this week, it just had to be good, right?
Not exactly. Let’s just say that—in basketball terms—the Toni and Candace sketches could have been slam dunks, but were missed layups instead.
The setup sketch starts off strongly enough as Toni and Candace enter the Moda Center, the arena formerly known as the Rose Garden, for their first Trail Blazers game. “When you got [the tickets], I assumed were were seeing a lecture about pioneers, people who blazed trails, settlers,” Toni says. Candace replies with a random fact: “You know I’m a trail blazer. I’m the first woman in Portland to ever wear jeans.” Anywhere else the line makes no sense, but it’s perfect in Portlandia.
The running commentary that the two make on the game from their seats was far too short—they could have given Marv Albert or Jeff Van Gundy a run for their money. Toni was just getting started in her comparison of basketball to dance (“It’s very ‘balletic’…”) when a timeout’s called. Candace thinks the game is over, but then the BlazerDancers hit the court. They’re appalled by what they see: skimpy outfits; moves that should only be performed “in your backyard, under a full moon”; and audience members ogling the women as if they were “entertainers.” Toni and Candace decide right then and there that they need to meet with Blazers’ management.
They meet with the team’s real general manager, Neil Olshey, to discuss their concerns. While Olshey holds his own against Brownstein and Armisen, the scene falls flat with lackluster jokes about ball washing and the short shorts growing out from the dancers’ assholes.
Candace and Toni finally get a chance to help the dancers’ reclaim their womanhood, by encouraging to express themselves at halftime through poetry, reading books, journaling. When the dancers get a chance to speak, they’re portrayed as ditzes. (“I like pasta, I like salad … I like summer.”) The audience never gets to see the halftime routine that Candace and Toni were rehearsing with them, which included primal screams and a routine to chants like “resist and read … resist and read…”
Instead, the last Blazers sketch focuses on a dejected group of players in the locker room after a loss, with our two favorite feminists trying to give them a pep talk. The guys have a hard time drinking from the Toni and Candace Kool Aid with platitudes like: “Tonight, the women won. And we are all women.” (Most of the players in this scene proved that should stick to their day jobs.)
“Trail Blazers” did have a couple standout sketches in an uneven episode. One sketch focused on Cynthia (Brownstein) who visits Lyle (Armisen), a “tattoo removal artist.” There’s sinister music playing as she enters his shop, and she shortly finds out that Lyle believes his talents are much better than they really are. He’s taken aback as she asks about his tattoos. The ink on his body is faded but still there, though he swears he removed his tattoos himself.
Another good sketch poked fun at the “made in U.S.A.“ trend with a couple hiring a seamstress to make their own clothing instead of buying sweatshop-made goods from other countries. The orders start pouring in, and the couple adds more hipster garment workers to their stifling garage workshop, giving them water and bathroom breaks only on occasion, and locking them in until all the orders are finished. The sketch’s kicker ends in Macau with an Asian couple shopping for clothes, who buy based on the “made in Portland” label.
Portland-based filmmaker Gus Van Sant makes a guest appearance hosting “The 2nd Annual ‘Can’t Do It Without Your Help’ Kickstarter Film Awards” aka “The Can’ts.” The awards honor the best Kickstarter films that help raise money for Kickstarter campaigns, such as bringing stories of obscure folk singers to screen and raising travel funds to fly a wife to see her husband who moved out of state for work. Even billionaire Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen (another guest star) had a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for his new uniform designs. Having Allen on a Kickstarter campaign is brilliant, but our favorite Can’ts nominee was a girl (Brownstein) whose Kickstarter video asked for more money to fund other Kickstarter projects (since she’s broke from funding other Kickstarters).
The three sketches work because they’re based on current trends, which Portlandia then skillfully skewers with hyperbole. But overall, the “Trail Blazers” episode was disappointing despite the number of guest stars. The scenes with Toni and Candace had much potential, but in trying to showcase and fit in the Blazer players, the dancers and the GM, the show lost sight of capturing the quirky humor inherent to these two women who are completely out of their element.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.