“The last thing I want is you out there shooting squirrels and birds for dinner.”
We’re almost halfway through Portlandia’s second season, and Friday’s episode “Grover” brought up a host of new ultra-specific subcultures like panhandling gutter punks, dog park etiquette, and the gripe that anyone with a Mac and a turntable can become a DJ. The main plot follows overachieving parents Brendan and Michelle, who are determined to get their young son Grover into a Portland preschool. Their warm-up talks with him with the “Future of Success” and “Future of Failure” boards were amusing (failure means public school, community college, violence, drugs, and eventually – “But we never want to judge anyone,” Fred says), but the highlight is the video they show at the interview with Grover’s prospective teacher. Michelle speaks to an off-camera interviewer about Grover’s first word: “He was starting to say ‘Da,’ ‘Da,’ and we thought here it comes: ‘Dad.’ He actually said ‘Dadelus,’ and he went on to teach us about the Icarus myth, which is something I hadn’t really thought about since school.”
My favorite sketches of the night started with the DJs and gutter punks, the first of which opened the episode with Fred and Carrie getting inundated with invitations to different DJ gigs, then venturing through a horrorscape of spinners (including a cameo by Portlandia director and co-creator Jonathan Krisel). The bank teller’s DJ business card was a nice detail (“DJ Direct Depo$it: Spinning Money Sounds and Cash Beats”) as was his musical taste: “I play rockabilly, hillbilly, and psychobilly.” The crusty “Broke and Hungry” panhandling gutter punks who use their dog, then puppy, then goldfish to lure passersby into giving them more money used was another favorite: “Hi, money for us please? Hey, do you have a dollar for bus money? Hi, do you have 60 cents for ice cream?”
The other supporting sketches were hit-or-miss, the least successful being when Fred plays the the token scrappy guy (“I’m the little guy!”) on a scavenger hunt team who ends up winning the game by floating into the air with a bunch of helium balloons. The hyper-defensive micro-managing couple Dave and Kath return in a day at the dog park, and in another scene Fred and Carrie play DMV workers who double as ‘hold music’ makers and rif away on their instruments while a customer waits on the line for over a week. All these scenes had interesting foundations but ended the same way Dave and Kath end all of their adventures – by flipping through some flash images of storefronts and car washing services and onto something else.
I enjoy silly sound effects and the occasional shrunken Harajuku girl like any other Portlandia fan, but this episode’s sense-to-nonsense ratio made it feel more like a settle than a push forward. That said, the tiny details are always a treat, and I revisited the episode just to pause it and read the “credits” on Grover’s preschool audition tape (see below). Weaknesses aside, Portlandia wins me over every time with this kind of tilt-shift approach to humor. It may err on the adorable and twee at times, but it’s never less than original, hyper-specific, and sweet-natured under all that faux pretension.
“This film is the intellectual property of Grover Marston. He thanks his parents for their continued support, despite having not assisted him in the creation of this film. Not that his parents are neglectful or disinterested in his projects, but they could tell that he wanted to work on it alone, so as his vision was not muddled. If he had asked, they definitely would have helped. This film was adapted from the autobiographical novella ‘The War Within,’ which Grover wrote in 2011.”