In Slate's Portlandia TV Club, Chris Wade will IM each week with a different fan of the show. This week, he discusses the first two episodes of the season with Steve Heisler of the AV Club.
Steve Heisler: Ok, here’s what I think about Portlandia: I’m amazed at how they’re able to keep coming up with targets for satire that feel original and unexpected. But while I’m impressed, I often don’t think the sketches are overtly funny. I find myself laughing more at throwaway lines than a sketch premise played out.
Chris Wade: At its best, it walks this great fine line between celebrating and satirizing a very specific niche of indie-hipster-yuppieness, one I’d consider myself right in the pocket for as a Brooklyn-dwelling improv-nerd who blasted Sleater-Kinney in my Volvo on the way to high school. The aesthetic’s a blast, but it breaks down when they don’t push their premises ambitiously.
Steve: They were so strong right out of the gate that they've been able to sort of coast along for a while.
Chris: What was exciting and kinetic seems more and more like a crutch. Portlandia may be at a crossroads. The first episode centers around Spyke, Fred Armisen's self-righteous bike rider character, discovering that MTV has become mostly about pregnant youths, and enlisting Carrie Brownstein to help "Take Back MTV."
Steve: This was an example of how much I appreciate the show without finding it uproarious. The MTV stuff is pretty fleet – within 20 minutes they’ve found three ex-MTV staffers (Kurt Loder, Tabitha Soren and Matt Pinfield) and have successfully taken over the network. And it ends with the ultimate apathy of the MTV generation – some guy on his couch changing the channel.
Chris: The MTV plot had such great potential to skewer MTV/early ‘90s music nostalgia by a generation who doesn't really realize that they're just as culturally irrelevant as they felt their parents were at that time, but don’t push it anywhere. They got Matt Pinfield! Isn't that hilarious? And yes, I find Matt Pinfield references funny, but then what?
Steve: It makes me wonder if Portlandia is content with that being the joke – treating Matt Pinfield as they would a super famous person. Not that they’re tanking a sketch on purpose, just that they’re trying to make the punch line that they get these people and they don’t do much.
Chris: I want to talk about this yoga sketch, where Carrie fantasizes about Fred during a yoga class and he turns out to be super-obnoxious at the end of it. Mostly because I think she is amazing in this totally natural doesn’t-even-have-to-try way.
Steve: She’s sort of a natural comedy enabler. She rarely has the huge payoff lines, but it doesn’t bother her. She’s the glue that holds things together and those sorts of people are so important. I think that’s why she and Fred are such a good pair. Fred’s from another planet, she’s from this one.
Chris: This sketch stuck out for me because it might be the first sketch they've given her any element of romantic motivation (other than the gender-reversed characters from Season 1), and it kind of made me realize how she just naturally is all the things so many "women in comedy" think-pieces hem and haw about trying to become. Not de-gendered in any way, just not consigned to female comedy tropes.
Steve: Episode 2 was stronger. The opening riffs on natural deodorants that don’t work hit home, and not just because I used to date someone who used only natural products that didn’t fucking work. Well…probably exclusively because of that.
Chris: “All packaging is yellow! All cleaning agents are brown!” Perfect example of their excellent ability to boil a sweeping yuppie marketing trend down to one perfect “yup” statement.
Steve: Kyle MacLachlin is back as the mayor, sending Fred and Carrie to Seattle to recruit new immigrants because he’s tired of Seattle stealing all of Portland’s press. I love that Seattle was on the cover of the Portland newspaper.
Chris: And it’s a little on-the-nose, but I couldn’t help but like that when Fred and Carrie arrive as, like, pseudo-missionaries to Seattle, the only defining features are “Kurt Cobain. The Space Needle. Seahawks.”
Steve: Totally. But this through-line also suffers the same lack of direction as the first episode. It’s just a series of quick cuts and doesn’t really heighten.
Chris: But we also have highlight of the night, the Spoilers Sketch. A perfect confluence of a great gamey premise based on an imminently identifiable hipster/yuppie trend, excellent referential details (ending on the spoiler to end all spoilers, the fate of Omar in The Wire!), excellent, kinetic editing and scene construction, and even calling back a character from Season 2 to button the whole thing up. This is Portlandia firing on all cylinders. It's delightful, and I hope the rest of the season aims this high.
Steve: The condensed arc of the sketch, the ebb and flow, it’s perfect. When Portlandia is at its best, the entire episode has a similar arc as well as the individual sketches. I’m thinking specifically of the one where Fred and Carrie visit their chicken and wind up in Jason Sudeikis’ cult.
Chris: OK, let’s put a bird on this convo, as it were. Final thoughts?
Steve: I’m happy Portlandia’s back. It’s a vibe, a good vibe. And a show I can hungoverly watch on a Saturday morning for some good laughs.
Chris: Vibe hard, Steve, vibe hard.