In Slate’s Portlandia TV Club, Chris Wade will IM each week with a different fan of the show. This week, he discusses “Blackout” with AV Club writer Les Chappell.
Chris Wade: Alright Les, just got off a shift at the Food Co-op, got some coconut water and kale chips, I think I’m in the Portlandia zone.
Les Chappell: I’ve got my fair trade espresso from the shop just down the block … and I’m in Portland as well, so it’s hard not to be in the zone.
Wade: Then let’s jump into “Blackout,” which takes ALL the long games they’ve been setting up this season and—I think rather ingeniously—uses a single event to climax and resolve them. Basically, we learn the mayor’s absence has left Portland with a stack of unpaid electric bills, leading consummate bureaucrat Kumail Nanjiani to shut off the town’s power and all our favorite Portlanida characters left to deal with the dark. The first thing that struck me about this was realizing just how many episodes from this season the “previously on Portlandia” pulled from. They’ve been setting up this finale since Episode 3!
Chappell: I was frankly shocked at how much payoff there was. I was expecting something relatively on the lines of “Brunch Special,” which was clearly their test ground for setting a larger narrative for the show, but I wasn’t expecting the amount of payoff we had. In addition to the Fred/Carrie/Alexandra dynamic from the last few episodes, we also have the mayor’s deeper exodus into the wilds, Peter and Nance’s ongoing travails with running a bed and breakfast, and Dave and Kath’s continued slide into insanity.
Wade: Even Toni and Candace, the feminist bookstore owners, got a great little wrap up moment when they’re revealed to be the mayor’s “muscle,” bullying Kumail into turning the power back on.
Chappell: And again, I was very surprised at how invested I was in the resolution of these stories, in addition to finding all of them very funny.
Wade: “Surprised” is a good word. I’ve been saying they’ve been having trouble finding the right balance between plot and jokes, but it was shocking how compelling it was to see all these characters’ individual plots get wrapped up. So we’re both on board with the big picture thread-knotting here, let’s get into what worked and what didn’t on a joke-by-joke level.
Chappell: What worked the most for me, as always, was Kyle MacLachlan’s mayor, now doing a full Colonel Kurtz in the woods and incapable of even recognizing Fred and Carrie.
Wade: Kyle MacLachlan’s totally earnest, in-the-moment commitment makes him a natural for being a hair’s width between composure and insanity.
Chappell: That’s a descriptor that fits a lot of Portlandia’s characters. Take Dave and Kath, who are revealed to be über-survivalist nuts and entirely prepared for the apocalypse—right down to having shelves of pickled reserves and hand crossbows. The closing tag of the episode, revealing them going full Sarah Connor and heading into the wilds, bodes well for what those characters could do in a potential fourth season.
Wade: And it makes sense that a faux-disaster situation would move them into an animalistic sexual frenzy. But now a few things I’m skeptical about. Bill Hader’s “Birdman” character—though he provided an excellently silly Australian accent—felt a little unfocused and underutilized. Especially the protracted moment of Peter trying to say his name.
Chappell: That moment worked mostly because of Armisen, rather than Hader. I enjoyed Peter becoming so flustered he couldn’t even say the names of the Beatles. “Tom … Gehrig?” And also the callback “Bird?” “Put a man on it!”
Wade: Basically, given the level they were functioning on at every other part of the episode, it felt like a misstep to not use the survivalist mentoring of Birdman to help break down some neurotic barriers between Peter and Nance.
Chappell: But I did think those two had a very sweet moment at the end, when they reunite at the bed and breakfast. Which goes back to what I was saying before about the affection we have for these characters—they’re not just joke delivery systems. After three seasons, part of me wants them to be happy.
Wade: Is it hyperbolic to claim that, after some unsure footing in early episodes, this season of Portlandia has successfully built a show that does sketch in a really unprecedented and genre-bending way?
Chappell: That’s a bit hyperbolic, but I would definitely say this season that’s done some new and interesting things with the format.
Wade: It’s been exciting, if sometimes frustrating and not always funny, to watch them negotiate exactly how to build episodes of the show that function as both entertaining 30 minutes of sketch and more ambitious pieces of storytelling. And in terms of pathos (this is why I feel justified being a little hyperbolic about it), the real genius here is in maintaining the fun, loose reality and capacity for outright jokiness of their sketch show, while committing to characters, relationships and stories that give viewers a bit of an emotional connection. Which in turn makes the sketches, even not super-brilliant ones, more fun and compelling to watch. It’s not something I can remember seeing happen, let alone develop in front of me over three seasons, on any other sketch show.
Chappell: I think they pulled it off. The moment at the end of the episode, where our main characters reunite and admit “I’m not Fred without Carrie” and “I’m not Carrie without Fred”? I’ll admit, I got a little misty there, which is something I never would have expected in the days of “Put a bird on it.” This season may not have had as many memorable sketches as I’d hope for, but I’m going to remember it for a lot of reasons, and I hope that IFC recognizes that and brings the show back for a fourth season.
Wade: Portlandia Season 4: more plotiness? More memorable standalones? Or have they found the sweet spot?
Chappell: I think there’s more fine-tuning to be done in terms of balancing the two, but they’re definitely honing in on it. I think arcs of two-three episodes seems to be the right balance, and then tying it all together in the finale is the right formula. For you: favorite sketch of the season? My vote’s for “Unconventional Art,” with “Spoiler Alert” a close second.
Wade: I actually really liked the hippie dude who’s hiding going to the gym from his housemates. And “Historical Punk House” was pretty good too. But I guess I’m a sucker for ragging on subcultures.
Chappell: And I’m a sucker for the sketches that start off relatively sane and then build to ludicrous speed. To me, Portlandia’s always at its best when it’s on the gradual process of losing its damn mind.
Wade: Well, let’s hope it continues to gradually lose its damn mind next year. I’m not Chris without Carrie and Fred.