“Hands up? I don’t think so, it’s hands down…the best.”
While last week’s episode showed some signs that Portlandia might be faltering, Friday’s “Cops Redesign” followed up with a solid, hilarious, and well-paced adventure that had everything that makes this show work, like the mix of both new and returning characters, a trademark sense of specificity, and an ever-probing weirdness that took a risk this time with some adorable hipster rats – which, despite my initial hesitance, ended up paying off and extending the show’s arsenal of indie humor weaponry. It also had bad coffeeshop art, cop fashion, arguments over krautrock, and 1890s dandy hobos.
When a “Trek in the Park” event is ruined thanks to a cop’s siren, Fred and Carrie are drafted by the mayor (a return appearance by Kyle MacLachlan and real-life Portland mayor Sam Adams as his assistant) to redesign the Portland police department in a more indie-friendly manner, and they wind up debuting some new cop uniforms via a fashion show for the incredulous chief of police. In an episode dotted with indie music cameos, St. Vincent’s Annie Clark models some of the new copwear. “The t-shirt simply says ‘PPD.’ Some people know it as Portland Police Department,” Fred says, “but we’ve also heard it as Please Please Damnit.”
Jason and Melanie updated last season’s “Dream of the 90s,” this time to honor the latest trend for turn-of-the-century fashion from a time when “everyone was knitting and sewing clothes for their children,” “belts didn’t really exist yet, everyone wore suspenders and carved their own ice cubes.” “I thought that died out 120 years ago,” Melanie says. True to the original, Fred replies with a wise “Not in Portland” and we’re treated to uber-artsy shots of beards, shirtless men holding chickens, penny-farthings, and home-cured sausage links. (It’s funny because it’s also true – I couldn’t help but think of this song during SNL’s Channing Tatum episode the next evening, with all its Newsies-style promo photos and Bon Iver’s sad bearded wildman look.)
Also returning were last week’s uptight parents Brendan and Michelle, this time to attend a school meeting over music donations. Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock appears as a parent whose record donation gets turned down by the rest of the parents for its sub-par level of taste (“I got Talk Talk, Back to the Future Soundtrack, Temple of the Dog…”). “Let’s talk about krautrock, Kraftwerk, Neu!,” Michelle demands her fellow parents, cringing with disapproval after the teacher admits she doesn’t know what Neu! is. “I am getting very stressed out that the head of our school does not know about Neu! Our kids are sponges, and when they leave here, what they listen to now will affect them the rest of their lives.” Delivered with the help of grandfather clock-like low piano notes, this scene was a perfect caricature of the unnecessary intensity of music snob debates and hyper parenting, given a hint of both the snark and sincerity that have come to define Portlandia.
New to the mix were the coffeehouse art dealers at Bad Art Good Walls, which finds Fred, Carrie and guest star Sean Hayes assembling a blurry dog photo and paintings of saxophones, chess pieces, and “forlorn red-headed women,” and they complete the arrangement with a sloppy painting of either Macy Gray or Muhammad Ali for a newly opened coffee shop. But my favorite new characters, and also my favorite sketch from “Cops Redesign,” was its biggest gamble – the animated rats scene as they plan their break-in to the new “zero packaging” grocery store. I’m the first person who gives up in the name of cheesiness, whether it’s musical numbers or cliche emotional epiphanies or anything in between, but Fred and Carrie’s understated and intentionally lazy voiceovers and the quality of the animation itself made this scene work, and it pushed Portlandia’s weird limits to a new level – before we just had the scattered silly sound effect or a quick gimmick used to end a sketch, but now the show’s own tics and spasms have transformed into their own character ready to steal away an episode. There’s no need for whimsy and pitch-shifted voices when they’re hitting every subversive note, skewering what they love and loving what they skewer so well.
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.