Panic Room on Bar Rescue: "They were setting us up to fail."

“I miss the red walls...” smiled Panic Room owner Rod Bitton late Sunday afternoon. After a renovation poorly received in this newspaper, Spike TV was about to air the Bar Rescue episode in which the former Tonic Lounge is angrily remade by Jon Taffer and a team of lieutenants.  

The only footage that anyone had yet seen came when the Spike website put up a teaser clip of an irate Taffer screaming bloody murder in the Panic's bug-infested kitchen.

“Sure, there were bugs,” venue manager Joe Gallagher admitted, “but the reason was that they left the doors wide open for two days and then walked us in.  It wasn't like they planted a colony of ants in there, but it was something they capitalized on.” 

Criticisms of reality television's falseness miss the point. Since anyone scheduled to appear on a program will be to sure to watch prior episodes and study the signature format, participants adjust behavior accordingly. It's not real, but it's not not real. 

Knowing that the Tonic would have to tank in the early scenes of the show, Gallagher booked local punkers God Bless America, whose bare-assed frontman happily leaned into the role as avatar of a failing lounge. 

"They were setting us up to fail," Gallagher said. "For a concert without any set start time, without any promo, with all the house lights on, and without any music as the crowd enters, I booked a band that I knew the television audience and John Taffer would absolutely hate. They were hilarious, and he hated them."

As the 9 pm Bar Rescue airtime drew near, the Panic Room's phone kept ringing. "Penis Room!" said bartender Jedediah Aaker every time he answered the phone. A middling Sunday night crowd grew to near capacity as dozens of celebrants hustled inside to cheer, boo, and scream madly as the episode unfurled. 

Bar Rescue, typical of the breed, shapes each hour around a vague narrative arc featuring immediately identifiable heroes and villains, and, from the outset, owner Bitton was designated as the central problem.  While we would hope some of the more damaging details of his less-than-diligent stewardship were somewhat exaggerated—the massive debts, the paychecks eight weeks overdue—the bitterness with which Tonic employees savaged his reluctance to delegate at least felt honest. One doesn't just learn overnight how to pair lazy self-effacement with a cocksure grin.

When bar manager Heather Feather says how hard she works for him very night, the comic timing is impeccable. 

"That's why I never became a bartender," says Bitton.

Raucous regulars roared with laughter at each early comic-opera flourish of early incompetence. Some part of the crowd response must surely be fueled in part by hints about how Bar Rescue passively manufactured the insect swarms and empty gig to emphasize why rock-show vet Taffer and his kitchen guru should step in and steer the bar. "Bullshit!" they yelled at the screen—so often it was almost a refrain.

Still, the segment demonstrating the supposed need for Bar Rescue's mixology maven to take charge earned Heather Feather cheers for attitude alone. When asked by the male half of a planted "real Portland" couple to precisely replicate the drink just poured for his girlfriend, Feather appears unable to remember the ingredients.  And, also, entirely unconcerned.  

Although the threat posed by disinterested cooks needs no elaboration, inept bartenders are happily forgiven every day. Even if the Bar Rescue maven's eventual cocktail recipes weren't basically sorority rush-week spritzers—Captain Morgan and Smirnoff were the presumed sponsors–she was hardly an obvious upgrade over even Heather's worst-edited self. Bartenders, like bars, are rarely loved for their flair, but the Jon Taffer blueprint for nightlife dominion doesn't really acknowledge consumer free will: He assumes all local tipplers will be drawn to renovations, lured by the promise of future success. 

After the episode's final moments, the lead participants wander around the patio slightly dazed. They had no illusions about the Faustian bargain of reality television—money, gear, and promotion in exchange for temporarily surrendering ownership of their identities—but there's still a shock upon realizing that more people than you'd ever meet in a hundred lifetimes have now formed opinions of your character based upon a handful of staged interactions that were heavily edited for effect.  

“Four million people just saw that,” Bitton keeps repeating while staring into the middle distance.  “Four million.”  

National booker/side manager Tony Lopez checks his phone–'90s alt stars Sponge had just tweeted from tour that the bar deserves an Emmy–while a subdued Joe Gallagher outlined the venue's bright future before heading back for sound check with the noise rock bands about to take the stage.

“It was not as accurate as I thought,” said Heather Feather, genuinely confused.  Although she understood that dramatic license required the show to condense five days worth of footage into 40-some minutes of primetime rancor, she thought more attention would at least be paid to visual continuity: Evidently, the intra-scene cuts were so brazen that her hair noticeably changes length during conversations. 

As with her cohorts, Feather happily specified her irritations with Bar Rescue's make-over—for example, the patio umbrellas replaced with parasols unable to handle a Portland rain—but really cared much less about recounting past sillinesses than highlighting all they've afforded. 

The Panic Room's become an increasingly important local venue—one of the last to regularly schedule metal and hardcore acts—and, thanks to Spike TV participation, they were able to procure a sound system to rival clubs twice their size.  

“I actually like the redo,” Gallagher said, “the paint job, the new carpets, the new bar top, the new look.  I think it's actually pretty cool.  We were a dive bar, and there are way better dive bars.”  He's not far wrong. 

While the glossy black interiors and sleek surfaces somehow seemed both trendy and dated when they were made, a few months' wear and accumulated bric-a-brac has softened the effect: Imagine the bachelor pad of a newly-divorced suburban techie, and then imagine the same place after he's stopped working out and taken in roommates.  

By any possible measure, the current decor's heads and tails above the musty Welsh-airport-pub aesthetic of past years—and it's not like the Tonic itself came out of nowhere. The Northeast Sandy Boulevard space spent most of the '90s as a strip club called Rip City. In 1968, it was called Blarney's Castle, owned by Rheinlander founder Horst Mager. And according to legend, the original bar grew from a snack cart on the parking lot of an adjacent golf course.  

But even this current incarnation acquired a new nickname late last Monday. Following a meeting of the Portland Beardsmen, some enterprising regulars sneaked a ladder up to the Panic Room signage and duct taped an “E” and “S” over the “A” and “C.”  

Though the Penis Room sign lasted only about ten hours, the moniker seems likely to endure. That's all some staff members call the bar now, and the bar's ordered a Penis Room rubber stamp for use during concerts.

The airing of the show was timed for a premiere of a Bar Rescue spinoff entitled Back to the Bar, in which Bitton, Gallagher and Heather Feather will be flown to Los Angeles for follow-up interviews about (presumably improved) business at the new Panic Room.

“The sound system's very different, says Heather Feather. "The bar staff is very different.  Everything's so much better.  We took what we could from the entire experience, and, now that we have it, we're pushing twice as hard toward so much more.  We have good bartenders, we have good drinks, we have good shows.  We're a very good Penis Room.”

For now, you can watch the episode here.