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‘Portlandia’ Season 4 Episode 3 Review: About As Funny As Celery

Portlandia rolls out a decent episode starting off with a sketch where Portland’s 911 call center has essentially been converted into a WebMD hotline. Carrie and Fred dispense the same information to every call: It’s beets. We quickly ascertain that the source of everyone’s emergency is beet consumption, but when Carrie first questions the caller on whether his salad had beets, you think the sketch might be going in a dark direction – until the beets are found to indeed be the source of the problem. Portlandia employs the comedic truism that viewers love feeling smarter than the characters on-screen and the show deftly puts their own spin on it. The quality of the rest of the episode, however, is much more varied.

Two of this episode’s sketches are funny in concept, but run their joke premise into the ground by the end. The third sketch about a woman trying to get her food at a place with a complex set of ordering rules and components (think Chipotle on steroids) resonates, but by the end we just want the girl to get her pastrami sandwich already. Similarly in a sketch towards the end, Carrie decides to declare social bankruptcy and give up all her Twitter followers and Facebook friends. The sketch answers the question you’ve all been wondering of what would happen if you just unplugged yourself, but again after the moment of connection the sketch continues on past the expiration date. Still since the sketches are both only a couple of minutes long, they don’t feel actively unfunny, just not as uproarious as any of the sketches from last episode.

The show’s narrative sketch features guest star Steve Buscemi as the celery representative on the produce council in a film noir satire. In a refreshing change of pace, Carrie takes on two dynamic roles as the egomaniacal head of the produce council as well as Buscemi’s soft-spoken wife she delivers on both counts. Fred complements Carrie in his respective roles as both a brussel sprout and bacon lobbyist, but apart from the main characters’ standard good acting, I think Buscemi suits the more dramatic tone perfectly. Here he excels as a hyperbolic version of the seedy treasurer he plays on Boardwalk Empire. Buscemi’s pathetic attempts to get the world to notice celery not only plays to his strengths, but isn’t he also the perfect person to represent celery of all produce? The sketch succeeds primarily in nailing the high-contrast, noir aesthetic and accompanying obscure dialogue, which results in a lesser emphasis on joke quality.

At three episodes in, it has become clear that the pet haven commercials will indeed be the new Milk Advisory Board. That’s unfortunate because the pet haven bits are derived from a central joke that Fred is an eccentric guy, which has been done better before. The last sketch of the episode is about Kumail Nanjiani quitting his day job to join the homeless Carrie and Fred only to realize that living off panhandling isn’t the life for him. Nanjiani’s apathetic performances have finally reached a point of diminishing returns because now the audience knows almost exactly how sketches with him will play out. Not to say Nanjiani isn’t a strong comic actor, but it would be best if Portlandia could give him some more diverse material or at least hold off on his droll, bureaucratic caricature for a few episodes.

Not Portlandia’s strongest showing, but this episode still had a more inspired group of sketches than the premiere. Portlandia again proves it knows its target audience with strong sketch premises, but ultimately exhausts the laughs by the end.