After a little experimentation with structure early in the season, Portlandia’s “Fashion” episode returns to the formula on which it cornered the market on the hipster comedy (with Northwest sensibilities). But creators and stars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein must have left out a key ingredient as some of the storylines fall flat, feeling all too familiar, despite a stellar array of guest stars—from Kumail Nanjiani and Parker Posey, to Oscar the Grouch.
Let’s start with the positive: one of the episode’s more entertaining plots follows Iris’ (Brownstein) and bike messenger Spyke’s (Armisen) journey through the American justice system. He receives a cease-and-desist order from The Simpsons’ Matt Groening to stop printing “Bart Ska-mpson” T-shirts. Groening, a Portland native, tells Spyke that his bootleg merchandise is awful and that “Bart Ska-mpson” is the worst pun ever: “As creator of The Simpsons, this makes my eyes hurt,” he says. Of course, the angry, indignant Spyke represents himself in court, and he has a few tricks—including a real-life Bartholomew J. Simpson to help his case. While Spyke has never been our favorite Portlandia resident—and there was a library/research interlude on copyright infringement that wasn’t particularly funny or even necessary—the court scenes with Groening and its punchline(s) were a delight.
The same can’t be said of two other storylines with Brownstein in the lead. One starts off promisingly with the always hilarious Kumail Nanjiani as a salesman at an upscale clothing boutique. Carrie says she’s interested in buying new jeans, but is quickly corrected by Nanjiani, who steals the episode with this line: “If you want jeans there’s an OshKosh B’gosh around the corner.” He then shows Fred and Carrie the care of raw denim, which should never be washed. He wraps a napkin around his index finger to “just wipe” the denim. The education process, he says, is “like teaching a lizard… how to cover a Foo Fighters song.” Nanjiani’s dry delivery is key in making that nonsensical statement amazingly funny.
Now if the sketch ended there, it would have been perfect, but Fred and Carrie continue the theme. She dons a big floppy hat saying that she’s always been jealous of people who could “pull things off,” i.e., wearing cowboy hats and leather jackets. A confession scene to her parents about her new fashion choices is lame, with the best part about these sketches being Fred’s comparison of her look to The Flying Nun’s.
Brownstein’s other sketch involves a Pygmalion-like change for her Quinn character from a street urchin to a fashion model/spokeswoman for the Dollar Store. With Armisen and guest Posey serving as her Henry Higgins, they first discover her panhandling and circle drumming on a Portland street corner. “She living the Dollar lifestyle,” Posey says. A montage of her transformation follows, but the only thing that saves it is a Photoshop joke on Brownstein’s retouched photos. Even a duet called, “Money for beer,” sung by Armisen and Brownstein just doesn’t have the hooks or memorable lyrics like “Dream of the ‘90s.”
All wasn’t lost in “Fashion,” as Ed Begley Jr. makes another welcome appearance as a doctor who diagnoses Fred with EOG—Early Onset Grumpiness. (He asks if Fred has ever yelled the phrase “Get off my lawn,” or opted for a lesser quality restaurant because of a shorter wait time.) Begley’s onscreen time was too short, but a surprising appearance by Oscar the Grouch advising Fred to revel in his grumpiness was a random, welcome substitute.
The first five episode of this season’s Portlandia had an energy and a freshness and that this week’s episode lacks. Here’s to hoping that this “Fashion” statement is a short-lived trend.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.