Portlandia’s season finale, “Noodle Monster,” riffs on old Japanese monster movies, but instead of fighting off Godzilla, Gamera or Daimajin, the citizens of Portland are terrorized by a gigantic ball of noodles, created by sheer cultural ignorance / indifference. Yes, the premise is absolutely ridiculous, but it’s the best thing about the episode. We only wish that creators Jonathan Krisel (who directed), Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen would have played up the attack of the ramen theme even more because the episode’s ancillary sketches fell flat by comparison.
“Noodle Monster” opens with Gregory Gourdet, executive chef of Departure restaurant in Portland and a Top Chef contestant, looking for a bite to eat on a rainy night in Kyoto, Japan. He’s served a dish of noodles alongside a bowl of broth from a wizened street food vendor. He doesn’t quite know how to eat the noodles, and the woman ominously tells him: “Do not mess with this noodle.” We later learn that the noodle isn’t your typical ramen—the broth isn’t poured over noodles—this is tsukemen. “Only dip,” she warns.
The opening credits change this week to reflect the Japanese influence, which is always a fun touch. But the episode immediately segues into a scene with our not-so-favorite neurotic couple Peter (Armisen) and Nance (Brownstein). They’re eating at Gourdet’s restaurant, and when presented with the dry noodles, broth and accompanying accoutrements, they’re not quite sure how to eat the dish. “And the eggs are for breakfast for tomorrow?” Peter asks Gourdet. To his credit, Peter wants to follow the proper way of eating the tsukemen, but Nance is hangry. She freestyles eating the ramen and starts pouring everything together in the bowl, throwing tradition into the wind. Things get worse at home when, to save space, she combines the noodles and the broth together in the same container, setting the stage for the birth of the giant tsukemen monster that terrorizes Portland.
We would have preferred more airtime for the killer ramen because the supporting sketches proved to be much weaker. Kyle Maclachlan returns to Portlandia as The Mayor to help woo bigwigs from Nokia, who are scouting locations for a new division. They’re torn between Portland and its nemesis Seattle. “No contest,” he tells them. “A bunch of dum dums up there.” Maclachan’s goofy mayor is always a treat, especially when he studies Japanese business traditions, like bowing, via YouTube to win over Nokia. You can imagine his disappointment when he learns that Nokia is a Finnish company. While this storyline carries on the theme of cultural awareness, we can’t help but think that it’s just a big product placement for the phone company.
The Fred and Carrie (Armisen and Brownstein) scenes about Fred leaving his phone at home elicit even fewer laughs: Look, he’s going into withdrawals…he doesn’t know what to do with his hands…the sketch was all too ordinary. Portlandia is at its best when it takes commonplace first world problems to the next level or skewers them, like what the show did with drones and virtual festival attendance in this season’s first episode “Pickathon.” But it failed to do so with the forgotten phone skits.
Faring better is an NPR-based storyline that features Armisen and Brownstein as public radio personalities in the midst of the dreaded pledge drive. They’re begging for money and talking about public radio’s “driveway moments,” describing times in which people don’t leave their cars, even when the commute’s over, in order to hear the end of a story. We didn’t quite know how these scenes fit into the overall storyline, but they brilliantly set the stage for the entrance of the episode’s hero.
The Mayor, Fred, Carrie, Gourdet and other cabinet members assemble in the City Hall’s conference room to discuss ways to combat the growing tsukemen. It’s a fun parody of Independence Day or any other war movie with Maclachlan spouting lines like, “Chef, what do we got here?” There could have been even more hilarity if Portlandia played up the dramatic monologues here for the mayor, replacing the unforgettable “This is our independence day!” with something more culinarily or culturally relevant.
Now for the episode’s hero. It’s none other than Kai Ryssdal, host of NPR’s Marketplace. He’s brought into the radio station with a military escort to take over the airwaves and break into the pledge drive. Ryssdal starts spinning a yarn about Asian travels and noodles, and lo and behold, the tsukemen is captivated by the story. S/he is having a “driveway moment,” allowing Nance to come in and try and undo her thoughtless damage. With Ryssdal droning on in the background, the noodle monster is distracted and she begins to dine appropriately. (Or maybe that should be inappropriately, considering the gestures she makes to get the giant noodle in her mouth).
We were hungry—pun intended—for more outrageousness and wackiness from an episode built around a giant ramen ball, but the unevenness in humor among the various sketches left us mostly unsatisfied. Thankfully, Ryssdal’s surprising turn as an unlikely hero helped save the day and the episode.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.