Serving up a July 4th-themed Portlandia episode in the dead of winter seemed a bit odd (or even cruel, depending on your current weather conditions), sort of like showing A Charlie Brown Christmas on Valentine’s Day. Since the sketch comedy prides itself on being off-center, we just went with it, and followed Fred (Armisen), Carrie (Brownstein), their various alter egos and other Portlanders as they navigated the holiday’s traditions: perfecting the “French exit” and shopping on the dark web.
The “4th of July” episode marks Kath and Dave’s (“A O River!”) first Season Five appearance. They’re worried about their barbecue, and feel pressure to do something different. To make a statement with their party, they hire a grill guru, played by the awesome Jane Lynch. (She channels a party planning character who’d fit perfectly in any number of Christopher Guest films.) Kath explains their dilemma—“We love red, white and blue, but I’ve been to that barbecue.” They mull over doing a pig roast in which the animal is speared at the party. We’re not sure if this next exchange was improvised or scripted, but it’s horrifyingly funny: “The pig is trained to jump towards you [and the spear] to its death,” the grill guru explains. “So it’s self-defense, really,” adds Fred.
Toward the end of the planning session, the three opt for “The Shitty Punk BBQ” theme with a clogged toilet, a half-broken speaker, spiky hair, lots of studs and food items like a fennel frisee almond vegan hot dog. They also periodically flip each other the bird punctuated by a “f-ck you” to get into the spirit of the picnic. “This seems authentic to me,” Kath says. When it’s time to grill, Dave and Kath and their friends aren’t exactly having the best time—but that’s exactly the point. When the grill guru returns to the party for a Top Chef-style judgement, she proclaims the party a success, with its “charred synthetic meat,” stale beer, a barking dog and a toddler running around in a poop-filled diaper. The sketches were a little predictable, but Lynch’s guest turn, and her banter with Dave and Kath, saved the BBQ scenes from being completely overdone.
In another of the episode’s three storylines, Fred and Carrie—two of the more normal characters on Portlandia—map out an itinerary to hit up all of their friends’ July 4th parties. Fred, however, has a problem with popping in and out of gatherings and feels obligated to say goodbye to people before taking off for the next party. Carrie asks Fred to do the “French exit”—in which they leave without talking to anyone—but he continues to linger. She’s frustrated because they’re already falling behind in the schedule. “You’re actually being rude to me by being polite to everyone else,” she tells him before separating to tackle the party schedule at their own pace. These two BBQ storylines were dripping with satire and gave us completely different angles on the same theme. The Fred and Carrie sketches, however, hit closer to home because the characters simultaneously epitomized and skewered different types of partygoers. (Plus, it’s also fun to watch the cameos, with Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker and her family making appearances this week.)
The third major story in “4th of July” features the Mayor (Kyle Maclachlan) and his assistant (Sam Adams, the former mayor of Portland) dressed in boy scout uniforms on a quest to find fireworks for the city’s celebration. Since time is of the essence, the Mayor and Sam search the digital black market and find a dealer in Mr. Bacon (Armisen), which the Mayor inexplicably pronounces “Bah-cohn.” Because of all the veiled conversations, the Mayor ends up accidentally purchasing artillery, including rocket launchers, to fire during the festivities in downtown Portland. While the miscommunication exchanges between Armisen and Maclachlan are entertaining, the fireworks story was the least appealing in the episode. The Mayor has always been dim-witted, but his idiocy reaches new lows in these sketches that even a choreographed dance scene with a rocket launcher couldn’t save—he’s no Dr. Strangelove.
This week, Portlandia once again tinkers with its format, focusing all storylines on the same theme, which offers viewers a more cohesive narrative. And despite a few unsurprising moments in “4th of July,” the sketch comedy—now halfway through its fifth season—feels re-invigorated and is still managing to find fresh ways to skewer American pop culture.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.