Portlandia generally starts off each season with a strong episode, followed by one that’s just sort of “meh,” and this season’s no different. After last week’s fun debut, Pickathon, which poked fun at man buns and aging concert goers who love the music, but hate everything else about festivals, the series skips attempts at subtlety and takes a direct approach to aging in this week’s “Going Gray.” The show again follows a singular theme, skipping the interstitials and non sequitur commercials, but one of this week’s main storylines was weaker than the other, leading to an off-balanced episode.
In the opening scene, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein play their alter egos, Fred and Carrie, turning in for the night on their twin beds, a la Bert and Ernie on Sesame Street. As they settle in, Fred’s having a lot of trouble remembering what they did during the week, and when the next morning breaks, Carrie pierces the silence with a serial-killer-in-the-room scream: Fred’s hair has turned gray overnight. Here’s where the episode stumbles a bit, as it spends too much time following Fred as he tries to figure out how old he is. He can’t remember. “I’m very 32,” he says. Even when they visit Fred’s mom for age verification, she’s no help either because she, too, is an age denier.
Fred goes through his stuff at his mom’s house, collecting computers and phones to help find evidence of the last 18 years of his life. While the plot is lame, we had to laugh at the stash of old tech stuff. (Who doesn’t have a dead computer and a stash of old phones sitting somewhere in a drawer at home?) Fred takes all his gadgets to a computer repair shop to extract the data from the machines. Kumail Nanjiani returns as a hilariously deadpan customer service rep who explains to Fred that his information will be then stored in the cloud—then transferred to “the river” after six months. In classic Portlandia form, Nanjiani sort of explains the river, and then does a cerebral riff on the concept of entropy, talking about the general decline and disintegration in a person’s life. It’s a little weird, but it gets even weirder as Fred cajoles the store’s manager—an astrophysicist—into giving him a Black Hole Kit so that he can travel back in time.
While Fred’s bizarro adventure is amusing, the laughs were few and far between. Carrie’s scenes fare much better, as her storyline was grounded in reality. (Sort of.) When she’s texted by the Mayor (Kyle MacLachlan) to come down to City Hall, he greets her in a bathrobe. He recounts a “promise” they made to each other five years earlier: If she wasn’t dating anyone, they’d have a child together. She tries to explain that it was one of those things that people just say, but don’t really mean. The Mayor, however, is dead serious, and puts a cannister of his sperm down on his desk. She’s confused, and in the best exchange of the episode, he explains: “Every mayor has a can of sperm in a beer fridge behind his desk.” And if the mayor’s a woman, she asks, “They don’t have sperm.”
The whole conversation with the Mayor does make Carrie think about her own biological clock. She visits an OB-GYN (played by Arrested Development creator Mitchell Hurwitz), whose vulgar bedside manner crosses many, many lines. During the appointment, in between pulling out fake spiders and cobwebs out of her nether regions, he tells her, “You’re a couple years away from being an old spinster.” She switches to a straight-laced female doctor, whose uncaring demeanor is so off-putting that she asks for the clown doctor back. The unbelievable exam finishes with Hurwitz declaring that he’s found a frozen Walt Disney between her legs because “your cooch is kind of cold.” The entire scene is so wrong, but the slapstick was hilarious.
Despite the absurdity of Carrie’s storyline, Portlandia touches on an issue that many women face today—if and when to have kids—bringing the conversation to the forefront. “Going Gray” then merges Fred and Carrie’s two very disparate storylines back together neatly at the end, when Carrie, in all earnestness, asks Fred if he’ll have a baby with her and he agrees. We’re a little apprehensive about the prospect of Fred and Carrie leaving the “friend zone.” You never know where Portlandia will take this—except they’ll probably have to push the Bert and Ernie beds together at some point.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.