Last year, the season premiere of Portlandia was an elaborate affair that announced with aplomb IFC’s most successful sketch comedy show had returned. There was a reunion of some of the most recognizable faces of the MTV generation, an opening musical number that went through multiple genres and Mind Eraser shots, and the introduction of a new recurring character in Chloë Sevigny’s Alexandra. More than that though, it was a pair of episodes that gave the feeling the show was trying something more ambitious than it had in previous years, as if they were laying the groundwork for a more focused approach to the season. This turned out to be true, as season three took a semi-serialized approach that followed the opening of a bed-and-breakfast, tracked the effects of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl on the ensemble and established a mayoral scandal that eventually shut the entire city down.
By comparison, this season premiere of Portlandia is a fairly sedate episode. Yes, there are a few big-name guest stars in the form of TV On The Radio frontman Tunde Adebimpe and Upside Down star/inceptive Manic Pixie Dream Girl Kirsten Dunst, but they don’t monopolize the episode the way the MTV personalities did last year. There’s less of a sense that the show is laying the groundwork for something bigger—if anything, the sketches are more self-contained than prior outings, focusing on the daily lives of couples rather than assertively satirizing Pacific Northwest hipster culture. Where season three started big, season four starts off small, still feeling like Portlandia but less like the show is trying to assert its presence with experimentation.
At this point in its life though, Portlandia doesn’t need to assert its presence. With a Peabody Award and a Writer’s Guild Award on the shelf amongst many other accolades, creators Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein have found the right creative groove for the show they want to keep making, and have even found ways to continue making it alongside endeavors like fronting a Late Night band or continuing to stoke Sleater-Kinney reunion speculation. The show still exists largely because they love doing it and want to keep doing it, and there’s nothing wrong with them taking a quieter tone as long as it’s still funny,
Thankfully the majority of “Sharing Finances” is funny, starting off with the runner sketch of Doug and Claire. Unlike most other couples on the show—Fred and Carrie, Toni and Candace, Kath and Dave, Nina and Lance—this is a couple that has some friction to go along with their neuroses, as we see in their reaction to finances. Doug is incredibly neurotic about keeping track of the money he owes Claire to the point of scrawling everything down on scrap paper when they’re out to dinner, while Claire just wants him to stop complaining about the stove that she made the decision to buy. That friction is exposed when Claire proposes they merge their bank accounts over the advice of the bank, and Doug proves that warning entirely justified when he splurges on a front yard hot tub.
It’s a sketch that’s closer to a sitcom plot than what you’d expect, but Portlandia keeps it flavorful by adding a hot tub salesman who’s played as more of a mystical figure than a shrewd salesman. Rather than bickering the salesman and Doug offer a casually persuasive approach, talking about the historical benefits in Japan and Greece (“I didn’t know that, and I don’t think you know that either” Claire responds), and manage to win her over with one finger in the tub. That is of course until he throws down even more money for a Portland Delorean (not to be confused with Portland-based band Dolorean) and all Claire can do is shake her head in disgust. A couple that doesn’t quite mesh together works well in Portlandia’s universe, and assuming Doug doesn’t head back to 1955 in it they’ll hopefully continue to flesh out the show’s romantic spectrum.
The other major couple is the return of old favorites Kath and Dave, last seen heading into the mountains to protect their unborn child Sarah Connor-style. No sign of whether or not parenthood will remain part of the characters, as they’re busy with a far more dangerous objective: finding a parking space in downtown Portland. Here, director Jonathan Kriesel indulges the more cartoonish side of the show, as the only space they can get has a 15-minute limit and they try to squeeze in all of their downtown errands at once. The action takes on comedic speed, complete with accelerated running and tapping sound effect, as they run through judgments at the art museum (“Juxtaposition, pre-imposed industrialism”), offer up some half-hearted congratulations and condolences to family members, experiment with some new molecular-inspired food and still have 45 seconds left for a quickie in the backseat. These two represent the intense side of Portland life, and their first appearance of the season adds an interesting level of good-natured banter to said intensity.
The players are separated from each other for their own separate sketches, though both are also focused on their characters trying to find someone special. Brownstein’s Sandra finds herself taking a page from the Her. playbook when she finds herself falling in love with an AI. After seeing some inspirational messages written in the window across the street, she tracks down the source of those messages and learns it’s a marketing ploy based on her shopping habits, up to and including “Kermit the bag.” As a relationship-based sketch it’s a bit too unfocused to tell a good joke about either information-gathering or impersonal love, though there’s a fun scattered quality to her search. (And the old woman saying “Crazy bitch” as a closing aside makes the whole sketch worthwhile.)
Armisen’s Fred faces a similar level of disconnect with a new relationship, except this one comes courtesy of Portlandia’s avatar of bureacracy Kumail Nanjiani. In his latest role, Nanjiani plays a “date fact checker,” here to corroborate the various anecdotes Fred told his date. Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of white lies, some of which would get him thrown out of the comment sections on this very website. First, he claims that his favorite show is Breaking Bad when in fact that’s below True Blood in his catch-up queue (“Do you know Breaking Bad?” “What it represents. In television”), and then he claims that he’s acquainted with TV On The Radio personally. Here’s where Adebimpe comes in, making the most of a brief appearance: popping in to disprove Fred’s claims, laughing disdainfully at him and then walking out. This sketch works better than the Sandra one because it’s a better commentary on early relationship honesty, and Armisen’s simmering discomfort always pairs well with Najiani’s implacable features, especially when he comes in with a score “just above sex grifter.”
Finally, there’s the one sketch that doesn’t revolve around relationships, which is the opening featuring Dunst. Her character Kim is housesitting for an aunt in Portland for the summer, only to realize that she’s constantly hearing whispers of conflicting advice. Research reveals that the previous inhabitants succumbed to a terminal case of being informed, as in 2006 they starved to death after being unable to learn what things were good or bad for them. It’s an amusing twist on the way Portlandia residents get competitive about knowing everything (shades of season one’s “Did You Read”), and Krisel also spices it up by filming the sketch horror movie-style as Kim is eventually driven mad by the arguing (“Sitting is bad for you.” “I read it in the New York Times.” “Standing’s bad for you too.” “NPR!”) and hurls herself out a window to escape.
Here’s where one of those wonderful Portlandia twists comes up, as once she’s in the land of the dead whatever beef they had with her is gone. All three segue right into casual conversation, offer her some tips for effective haunting (“You want to cite kind of a vague source”), and the Armisen ghost decides to head back into the house through the wall. Again, there’s no indicator that these ghosts will be part of the series’ DNA going forward, but if the show wants to add the supernatural to its repertoire it’s a welcome addition.
Welcome back to The A.V. Club’s Portlandia coverage! I’m glad to be back as your native guide to the world of Pacific Northwest satire.
This Week In Portland: The Slide Inn featured in the Doug/Claire sketch and shown briefly in the date fact checker is real, and features an excellent brunch menu. I recommend the Austrian pancakes. Also, Kath and Dave could have saved a lot of worry if they just did their downtown errands on weekends or after 7 p.m., when the street parking time limits don’t apply.
The Milk Advisory Board doesn’t return in the premiere, and may not return at all this year now that last season’s Milk Advisory Board writer Chelsea Peretti is busy merging id and ego over on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. In its place we have the Portland Pet Haven with new characters Trish and James, the latter of which is another Armisen character betraying a highly broken interior. (Of his adoptive parents: “We adopted you, but that doesn’t mean you can call us Mommy and Daddy.”) We’ll have to see if this becomes the next regular short sketch.
Some of you may take umbrage at my listing Upside Down as Dunst’s main credit, but I only do so as a way of encouraging you to watch it. It’s a special kind of terrible. It starts with the premise that the pollen of pink bees defies gravity, and it only gets better/worse from there.
Fred has not updated his Myspace page Since December 20, 2007.
Inspirational messages: “Friends are free for the making.” “Smiles are contagious.” “Happiness only costs a frown.” “You only live once, why not start today.”
Dave and Kath are full of ideas to make next Thanksgiving a “molecular” Thanksgiving. “The turkey will be like an ice cream sundae.” “It’ll take up so much less room on the table!” “Like a science fiction movie!” “I will wear silver.” “I will wear clear.”
“I wanna be accepted as the ‘guy who fakes it at first, but then gradually gets more and more honest as the relationship goes on’ kind of guy that I am.”