After playing with the narrative structure for the first two episodes of the fifth season, Portlandia throws in another change-up with “Healthcare.” Instead of following a single plotline through the episode, the comedy focuses on several characters in separate stories, but all directly tied to the same theme. Unlike most episodes from previous seasons, there wasn’t a single standalone sketch or a random, head-scratching “commercial” to break up the main action, either. The tweaks in the Portlandia formula this season have helped keep the sketch comedy fresh. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to hear ludicrous lines like, “How do you know she won’t grow a scrotum with that heart?” (We’ll explain that one in a minute.)
The episode opens with Candace as she chides two girl scouts in Women & Women First. The two girls had the audacity to try and sell her cookies with “images of females on a box.” She stops short in the middle of her tirade because she’s had a heart attack. Rather than collapsing or calming down, she finishes yelling at the girls and then begins to criticize Toni for not responding more quickly. We’ll say it: Candace is kind of a bitch… but we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Other characters in the episode include Brendan and Michelle, Grover’s hipster parents, who are suffering from a general malaise. They explain to their doctor (St. Elsewhere’s Ed Begley Jr.) that they’re tired all the time. “It took me three nights to watch one episode of Masters of Sex” Michelle explains. “I just kept falling asleep.” Without missing a beat, the doctor responds, “Pretty common.” When they don’t get a diagnosis they like from their physician, they seek out opinions from other health practitioners. Brendan explains his symptoms to an unsympathetic nutritionist, “After some coffee at night, after dinner, there’s a certain jitteriness.”
They finally find a cure-all for their ailments from a hippie street vendor: raw, unpasteurized milk, straight from the cow. Although they first have doubts about the safety of the beverage, the hippie convinces them by asking, “Did your mom pasteurize your breast milk?” Brendan and Michelle are sold, and even take over the “rawvolution” when the vendor gets busted for his milk business. There’s a police confrontation in a crowd of milk buyers. Shots are fired—though no one gets hurt—as the police try and capture Brendan, Michelle and the cow. Was that Portlandia getting a little political, or just a coincidence?
Peter and Nance get some bad news from the doctor (Begley Jr.). It turns out that Peter has cancer—with only has about “40 to 42 years to live.” They take the diagnosis pretty hard and contact the Make-a-Wish Foundation to grant him his three wishes (because that’s what the company does). Peter rattles off a few ideas, which include one-on-one dunking with Michael Jackson, doing standup with Sinbad, racing formula one cars in NASCAR, or being on a poster with Brigitte Nielsen. The story goes off the rails after a dutiful Nance gets sick of Peter’s requests to take care of him. (Men just can’t handle being sick, can they?) In several unfunny moments, Nance tries to catch cancer herself by smoking, tanning, breathing in asbestos, and sticking her head in the microwave. When none of that works, she flies to Chernobyl. The story is sort of saved at the end by Nielsen, who literally drops from the sky and into the power plant’s ruins.
Back at the hospital, the doctor tells Candace that she needs a heart transplant. Begley plays a great straight man opposite our two favorite feminists. He keeps it together when Candace whips out a hairy nipple and responds to his request to cover up with: “I’ve fed two children with these… and many lovers.” We are incredulous: Candace has kids??
After waiting about a half-hour on the transplant list for a new heart, Candace and Toni are shocked to learn that the donor was a man, prompting the aforementioned scrotum-growing question, followed by this gem of a line: “We will not put a man’s organ in a woman’s body. That’s very unnatural.” Portlandia should have quit while it was ahead with this sketch because Toni and Candace end up throwing out the heart—and then opt to explore experimental transplant options with animals. Toni and Candace’s story ends on a fairly ridiculous, but predictable note.
Portlandia has always kept abreast of current trends, and in “Healthcare,” the show manages to poke fun at various aspects of health and the medical system without getting overly political. Although the silly stuff doesn’t always work—as seen in this week’s unevenness—scratch beneath the surface, and you’ll still find a smart, subversive comedy.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.