The IFC sketch comedy series Portlandia is at its best when it riffs on contemporary American culture, adding just enough odd to the mix to allow the audience to laugh at the scenario—and at themselves. Many of the sketches in this week’s episode hit their marks, proving that the indie darling, now in its fourth season, still has street cred.
Even before the opening credits, the show proves it has its finger on the collective pulse as Bryce Shivers (Fred Armisen) and Lisa Eversman (Carrie Brownstein) recount how they’d fallen on tough times, but found economic relief by renting everything out—from extra shelf space in their fridge to their cars (poking fun at the Lyft and Uber craze). Lisa has one of the best lines of the episode when she non-ironically declares, from the front seat of her car, “He’s a total stranger. I feel completely safe.”
Another winning sketch involves Brownstein’s Kath character battling insomnia. She complains to Dave that she’s surviving on one-to-two hours a night. “I read all these articles. If you lose sleep, you die.” Dave tries his best to read or sing her to sleep, but to no avail. She finally remembers, though, what puts her to sleep: “Dave, that’s when I get tired … when I’m driving.”
The scene ends with Carrie nodding off behind the wheel and Dave trying to steer from the passenger side. A few mailboxes end up as casualties in her fight for sleep. The sketch is horrifyingly funny because it hits close to home for members of the plugged-in generation.
One of the more politically charged skits—by Portlandia’s standards anyway—involves Fred’s cramming of hip-hop history before a Jay Z concert. Fred feels like a poser in going to the show without a basic grasp of hip hop, so Carrie gives him a tutorial.
Fred is almost a hopeless cause, asking questions like, “Is this a fad, or is this here to stay?” and “What’s a Suge Knight?” or “Was Sir-Mix-a Lot in the Wu-Tang Clang?” An exasperated Carrie reminds him, “Clan! There’s no ‘g’….” When she asks him what ODB stands for, Fred guesses, “Old dirty Black man?” Ouch.
At the concert, however, Fred is ready when Jay Z (the voice of fellow SNL-er Jay Pharoah) asks the “Rick Moranis-looking dude” about his favorite part of hip-hop history. Fred’s ready and answers: “New York City 1977,” referring to the summer blackout that some believe helped usher in the age of rap and hip hop. If Fred had a mic, he would have dropped it after his self-assured answer. The sketch takes on, in a humorous way, how some people try and adopt (or usurp) Black and hip-hop culture for all the wrong reasons. (They’re usually the same ones who subscribe to The New Yorker just because the issues look cool on a coffee table. But we digress.)
Other segments to earn an honorable mention in the episode include Carrie and Fred teaming together with 16 other roommates to rent out a mixed-use loft space for $5,000 a month (at $275 each).
Candace and Toni from Women & Women First Bookstore also return for their first appearance in this young season. To make their store’s rent, the two hold a car wash and ask their only customer whether the wash is a “rush job for today”? The scene parodies the Carl’s Jr. fast-food commercials of bikini-clad women washing cars with burgers in hand, but in this case, these women are womyn and damn proud of it, too. Throw in Toni (Brownstein) randomly saying, “I got water in my vagina,” and the scene is classic Portlandia. What’s also refreshing is that the man in this scene isn’t the bad guy; instead, the skit plays up the laid-back Portland image.
Unfortunately, what doesn’t work are the sketches that refer to the episode title. Carrie, Fred and Olivia Wilde are ecoterrorists having a hard time being taken seriously. In analyzing why their stunts and protests are not working, Wilde offers this theory: “We don’t look like revolutionaries. We look like ravers.”
After the team meets a precocious kid, they switch causes from animal to children’s rights. Their young companion tells them about a forced child labor camp that turns out to be the kid’s home, and he’s protesting his parents’ rules. These scenes with the boy are a bit too cutesy, though we’re sure some segment of the Portlandia audience would appreciate the running gag of Wilde asking when would be a good time to expose her boobs, in protest.
We’re pretty sure that they’re the same viewers that like those Carl’s Jr. ads, too.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based pop culture writer and a regular contributor to Paste. Follow her on Twitter.