Now that it’s entering its third season, it’s entirely fair to call Portlandia a success story. This unassuming sketch comedy show has grown from being a lighthearted and occasionally surreal take on the Pacific Northwest into one of IFC’s highest-rated shows, a multiple Emmy nominee (with one win for Outstanding Costumes) and a 2012 Peabody Award winner for “satire that is fresh, organic and cage-free.” Their particular brand of humor even entered the top tier of pop culture, when creators Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein voiced a pair of archetypal Portland residents on The Simpsons and brought that city’s worldview to Springfield. (By the way, did we mention that The A.V. Club was featured in that episode too? That was awesome.)
As such, it would seem in character for Armisen and Brownstein to throw up their hands, say “This show is so over!” and choose to either stop doing it or dramatically reinvent the formula. Thankfully, they seem to have no intention of doing so, as the third season premiere episodes “Take Back MTV” and “Missionaries” promise more of the low-key yet twisted humor that the show has grown so comfortable using, even as their new position lets them commandeer more ambitious story arcs.
At the same time, there is a sense in the premiere that Armisen and Brownstein are more willing to deflate their characters, poking larger holes in the sense of self-involved entitlement that their doppelgangers experienced for the past couple seasons. The opening sketch of “Take Back MTV” is designed to emphasize their lack of ambition, featuring a disenchanted group of millennials trying to figure out what went wrong and wishing they had a protest song to rally behind. This seems to be leading to a triumphant new anthem for the season in the vein of “Dream Of The '90s,” but that expectation is subverted almost immediately as it transforms into a club scene less than two verses in. It hilariously breaks every option to build a new song, going from a robotic folk musician called “Bot Dylan”—sadly only the second worst pun this episode—to a piano player with a green mohawk to a ukelele player to a 1960s psychedelic group, every effort snaring them in a desperate party spiral not unlike Key and Peele’s LMFAO number last season.
The main plot has a similar focus, where the objective is successfully met yet ultimately futile. Spike, who regularly proclaims he doesn’t own a TV, finally buys one at a thrift store and is horrified to realize that MTV is no longer the MTV he recognizes, populated with lousy reality shows and devoid of what made it special in his time, when “People used to really rock the shit out of the vote!” Seeing inspiration in the Arab Spring, Spike and Iris decide the time has come to take MTV back for their generation—once they get someone to take care of the cat and water the plants. (“What plants?!” Spike demands in a terrific scene closer.)
From there, Spike attends a charity ball to obtain support for his cause, attended by such great philanthropic minds as Anne E. Casey of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and John S. and James L. Knight of the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation. This scene is priceless for that running gag, as well as seeing the neckbearded Spike being taken seriously by the upper crust. Sadly, it also takes the prize for worst pun this episode—and worst of 2013 so far—with one of the donors being a Scandinavian gentleman of unquestioned influence. (“Everything is brought to you by Fjohürs Lykkewe.”)
I unfortunately missed the MTV generation by about a decade, so it’s hard for me to get terribly invested in this story, or be excited by the reunion of MTV News figures Kurt Loder, Matt Pinfield and Tabitha Soren. Instead, this sketch is more interesting because of the way it’s willing to knock down the carefully constructed delusions of Portlandia’s main characters. Spike and Iris fight their way to getting this group together Ocean’s Eleven-style, but the efforts are complicated by Pinfield and Soren coordinating their young children. (Spike’s disbelieving reaction: “What are tweens exactly?”) And when they get to the MTV headquarters, the network executive happens to be one of those tweens—Skylar Tiffany Thomas—who is utterly unimpressed by their stories of watching 120 minutes of music to see Sonic Youth. Most cruelly, when the takeover is a success, their target audience watches with interest for only ten seconds, turning it off and going right back to sleep. It’s a tragicomic approach to things, and I wonder if it speaks of more maturity or self-awareness on the show’s part.
A sketch that works much better in “Take Back MTV” revolves around the renaming of a city street. This is one of those real-life details Portlandia is good at picking from the headlines—in 2009 the process of renaming Portland’s 39th Avenue to Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard caused something of a minor scandal—and once again, Portlandia converts reality into scarily plausible insanity. Civic-minded couple Malcolm and Chris are in attendance at the meeting, and they throw out a series of passive-aggressive suggestions for names. The tension builds delightfully as they slowly pour water while others are talking, and disregard the criteria of nominating real people by suggesting an imaginary monster or Film History Boulevard. (“But there are real people who were in film history,” Malcolm explains.) And the end result furthers my theory that Portlandia’s version of Portland is slowly evolving into the next Pawnee or Springfield, as Martin Luther King Sr./Mel Blanc/Kugupu/Steve Jobs/Ken Kesey/Music/Film History/Calligraphy Boulevard has more than a few echoes of Parks and Recreation’s “Time Capsule.”
The second episode “Missionaries” follows a similar vein for most of its running time, and as a consequence works much better as a whole. The narrative sketch features the return of Kyle MacLachlan’s mayor of Portland, his inferiority complex about Seattle riled up again by a flattering magazine feature about the latter city. (“When are we going to be on the cover of Portland Monthly?”) Arguing that Fred and Carrie are the best representatives of Portland there are—a line with more than a hint of meta commentary—he dispatches them to Seattle to recruit new residents for the city.
As someone who spent far too much time over the Christmas break telling friends and family how things are different (i.e. better) in Portland, this evangelical take on the subject hit painfully close to home. Compared to Candace and Toni, Bryce and Lisa or even Peter and Nance, Fred and Carrie are typically one of Portlandia’s saner couples, and their recruitment drive flips the insanity switch they all have lurking on them. Their approach to the problem turns both into Jehovah’s witnesses for the city, biking from door to door in matching suits to ask residents in eerily calm voices “Have you considered raising your children under the gospel of Portland?”
The final tally isn’t too impressive for their efforts, a result that leads to some wonderful forced cheerfulness from MacLachlan as he points out the two dogs they’ve added and the legitimate joy when new resident Alexandra turns up (played by Chloë Sevigny, still sporting her American Horror Story haircut). I hope that we’ll see more of Alexandra in the future, as a newcomer’s perspective would add a new flavor to the show as she reacts with alternative wonder and shock at Portland’s quirks. Plus, she invites herself to live with Fred and Carrie, and the more uncomfortable Fred and Carrie are the better they get.
“Missionaries” also offers several sketches that channel Portlandia’s better instincts. A Women and Women First sketch has Toni and Candace reaping what they sow, when a negative review on Yelp convinces them everyone is out to get them. As I said in my review of the holiday special, these are the show’s most developed characters at this point, and can simply be given a scenario and turned loose to comic effect. The fact that there’s actually something legitimate to make them angry makes them even funnier, as they go into witch-hunting mode on their customers who may or may not write things on the Internet. (Candace’s warning to a customer: “I will hold your hand and walk into the street and make us both get hit by a car.”) The reveal that the reviewer was tennis legend Martina Navratilova is a wonderfully random moment, and a good use of Portlandia’s growing cultural cachet.
Similarly, the sketch about spoiler alerts is a standout that calls to mind two of the show’s most memorable sketches, “Did You Read” from season one and “One More Episode” from season two. It channels both the show’s keen interest in pop culture—everything from Breaking Bad to Game of Thrones to The Wire is name-dropped and spoiled to an extent—and the culture of one-upmanship that pervades so many of the show’s social groups. The sketch accelerates at a nicely manic pace, eventually getting to the point where real life can’t even be discussed without qualifiers. (“Where are you with this moment in time? You want to know what happens next, right?”) And ending on a Newhart-esque twist only proves the show has gotten better at closing out its sketches, something it’s struggled with in the past.
Most interestingly, the show also indicates it might be moving in a more serialized direction. After a successful visit, Peter and Nance decide that their big house would be perfectly suited to a bed and breakfast (“We are the king and queen of cozy!”) and set their plan in motion with a visit to Jeff Goldblum, who’s now gone from running an artisan knot shop to a doily emporium. If possible, Goldblum’s Goldblum persona seems even more pronounced than it was in “One Moore Episode,” at one point turning into a cartoon character (complete with sound effects) as he and Peter are caught in a loop of cleaning their glasses. The sketch is abandoned after they leave the shop, which is so uncharacteristic for the show it makes me think they’ll come back to it at a later time.
And again, that’s a direction I’d welcome. I’ve said before that I think Portlandia has the potential to be more than a sketch show, as Armisen and Brownstein have gradually gotten better at constructing the narratives of the main sketches and building recurring characters and elements. It’s that core that’s kept the show from being a handful of hipster references and catchphrases, and based on this premiere (MTV-based digressions aside) it’s a core that’s thankfully still intact.
- I’ll be taking over Portlandia coverage full-time this season, and look forward to serving as your reviewer/native guide.
- The premiere introduces two new characters, Royce and Alicia of the Portland Milk Advisory Board, bringing you offerings like berry-seed milk (which I believe is just jam) and zucchini milk (which I’m almost certain I have seen at one farmers’ market). At present their barely restrained hostility isn’t different enough from couples like Bryce and Lisa to be noteworthy, but it’s an idea with potential that I hope gets featured each episode. Best line: “Zucchini milk had high magnesium levels causing hearing loss. Research is hard!”
- Forgettable sketches: Dave and Cath making their own YouTube video about setting up a tent, Brownstein fantasizing about Armisen during meditation only to be turned off by his New England accent. The second episode opening bit of “Mother’s Sun” was cute, but was eclipsed by the Portland Milk Advisory Board.
- So, was anyone actually spoiled by anything mentioned in the “Spoiler Alert” sketch?
- Armisen brings a wonderful repressed rage to so many of his characters, even the seemingly unassuming Fred. “Do you mean fight fire with fire literally? We could set it all on fire.”
- “We cannot be doing Mind Eraser shots!” is sound advice for anyone, regardless of whether or not they’re trying to write a protest anthem.
- Spike to the assembled MTV veterans: “Does anyone have any special skills?” Loder: “I can be sardonic.”
- “Men! Bring your bass guitars!” Coming soon to a Portland travel brochure near you.
- Features of Malcolm’s imaginary animal, the Kugupu: “It’s a sort of floating, lava-ish orb.” “All he wants to do is play.” “He has two colors, yellow and blue, and he changes them whenever he’s scared.” “Two marbles as friends, and like, they’re twins.” “He’s got a pulsing purple light that only comes on when he’s lying, so whenever he’s lying everyone’s like ‘Kugupu!’” The Disney Channel needs to green-light a series about this.