“Most people from Portland are just from Brooklyn.”
As a Portlandia recapper, I like to keep tabs on the general internet opinion of the show, and “No Olympics” is the first time I feel alone on my little island of love. Oregon Live said that “the premise didn’t click” and that it “was a stumble just as the finish line is in sight,” and The AV Club ended with the line “So get excited, those of you who can’t get enough of Candace, Toni, Kath, Dave, and all the rest of the recurring characters. The finale is absolutely lousy with them.” Portlandia might be guilty of falling back on the same characters and structures, but if watching Fred perform an absurdist interpretive dance in a canoe set to the smooth sounds of Erasure doesn’t make you smile, then what do you want out of this show?
“No Olympics” is notably free of recurring characters not counting Fred and Carrie playing themselves, whose mission this time is campaigning to keep the Olympics from ever coming to Portland. Kyle MacLachlan returns as the mayor, who is piqued over the concern that the international jockfest could end up “ruining the vibe of the city.” Fred and Carrie’s subsequent hypocritical triathlon has a few funny moments like when they pass the Smooth Moovers (from “Cat Nap”) on the street and do a double take, which was a quietly clever way to build Portlandia into a real world where “recurring” is no longer a bad word.
The show does occasionally lean too much on its endless criticism of various types of pretentious Pacific Northwest artist mentality and the way, for example, politeness can blur into surreal dimensions, such as the mayor’s phone call to the Olympics committee: “This is the mayor of Portland, Oregon calling,” he says, to which the rep replies “Never heard of it” and hangs up. Despite there being no one on the other line, MacLachlan continues on his self-righteous anti-Olympics rant, with Fred and Carrie observing in happy pride on the other side of the desk before embarking on their running protest that comes to a stop when Olympic diver Greg Louganis lures them into a jacuzzi and makes them change their tune: “We’re like the alternative to competitive sports,” Louganis says. “We’re like the punkers of sports.”
Fred’s hilarious scene as the interpretive canoe dancer is actually based on a real thing called “freestyle canoeing,” and I’m not sure whether my newfound knowledge of this sport helps or hurts the complete absurdity of this sketch. For an episode that was heavy on silly voices, accents, and nagging Sacagawea for small favors, a sketch with no lines save for the lyrics of Erasure’s “Oh, L’Amour” came as a weird but welcome vacation from Portlandia’s usual name- and reference-dropping mastery. A few favorite moments:
Sure, “No Olympics” had its weaker points, like the Johnny Marr bicycle valet scene and the tedious Lipsy Park sketch, with Fred and Carrie playing similarly clueless and distracted park planners focused on the details more than the big picture (like when they get into the deep psychological roots behind flying kites: “What’s the thrill? Like, it’s in the sky?” “Only the kite’s having fun!”) I also hate to throw the Lewis & Clark sketch on the weak list, but maybe it would’ve made a bigger splash if IFC hadn’t pounded us with that “we’ve got a pretty good speech coming up” promo clip all season (I know that’s not Fred and Carrie’s fault, but it was nonetheless stale to me by time I finally watched it). But at least Portlandia went for the challenge instead of its usual quirky-clever “Put A Bird On It” catchiness.
The episode ends with Kyle MacLachlan delivering the most beautifully awkward and seemingly improvised “Portland Anthem” on top of a big red velvet cushion, with lyrics like “And when we’re on the street / And you pull out a cigarette and say to me / ‘Oh mister mayor, let’s go to your place”:
I like to keep my Portlandia expectations pretty simple: I want to see Fred and Carrie have fun, I want to see pseudo artists with nothing to say skewered, and I want each episode, at least at one point, to get really weird. “No Olympics” brought all these things, so what is it the Portlandia haters are yearning for? We’re already getting every breed of uptight, pretentious, and environmentally-conscientious American hipster stereotype, a guest star variety that spans from indie musicians to NBA stars, and a likable leading duo who admire everyone they satirize, but if you can’t see beyond a little whimsy or one-notedness, you’re missing out on what makes Portlandia worth defending. Maybe it’s just that the barbs hit a little too close to home for comfort for some of these writers? In any case, bring on the finale!
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.