No surreal sketch comedy series is as laid back as Portlandia, which begins its third season tonight (10 pm, IFC), and its relaxed quality makes its weirdness pop. Creator-stars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein send up the affectations and delusions of 21st-century urban liberals, Pacific Northwest division; but the subset they’re spoofing has equivalents in every state and probably every country. Considering how much of the mainstream media has been taken over by the types they’re sending up — the kinds of people for whom the term “concern troll” was invented — this show often plays like a public service as well as a weekly half-hour of smart clowning. The nagging question, though, is whether a program as narrowly focused as Portlandia can sustain itself over the long haul. At some point during season two, I became convinced that it couldn’t. The first few episodes of season three don’t convince me otherwise.
There are a couple of deft takedowns and quotable lines, plus cameos from Martina Navratilova, who gets dressed down for writing a negative Yelp review of the lesbian bookstore Women and Women First, Patton Oswalt as a guy who leaves joke replies on Evites, and Jeff Goldblum as the guru-like proprietor of All Things Doilies, advising the owners of a new bed and breakfast. (“I love the beginner mentality,” he says, gently mocking their ignorance of doily history. “We’re all little baby chicks pecking our way out of our shells.”) Kyle MacLachlan, an actor I’m always glad to see, returns in episode two as Portland’s mayor, beaming like a man who’s never had an unhappy day in his life. (If you haven’t watched his spirited rendition of “My Portland,” please do; it’s magnificent.)
But there are also an alarming number of clunker sketches and lines. The worst are gathered in tonight’s season premiere*, the weakest of the episodes sent for review. The A plot of finds a couple of aging Gen X-ers (Armisen and Brownstein) planning a revolutionary action against MTV for abandoning the supposed idealism of its early years. It’s fun to watch early MTV personalities Kurt Loder, Matt Pinfield, and Tabitha Soren spoof themselves, but the sight of boneheads crusading to replenish the integrity of a cable channel that never had more than a thimbleful is only amusing for about 90 seconds, and the sketch goes (in segments) for over twenty. A stand-alone sketch about dunderheaded bureaucrats proposing inappropriate new names for Portland streets is never really funny, just improv-y. The only keeper is the moment when a smug liberal white lady lays a sisterly hand on the forearm of a black board member while announcing that she wants to name a street after Martin Luther King Sr., because Jr. already has one. (The black board member shoots her an “I won’t even dignify that with a reply” look, then counter-proposes Mel Blanc and Ken Kesey.)
The next couple of episodes are altogether better, but they still gave me that, “I graduated from high school last year, what I am I doing wandering the halls looking for my art teacher?” feeling. I smiled at a sketch about a dinner party whose conversation is paralyzed by fear of spoiling TV show plots, and by the mayor’s plan to send Armisen and Brownstein to Seattle to “recruit” new Portland citizens. But for a show that once displayed a knack for smiling sweetly while twisting shivs in juicy targets — see the classic season one sketch, “Is It Local?" — it all feels like evidence of slow motion decline. Key and Peele, another smart and still-underappreciated sketch comedy series, doesn’t have Portlandia’s problems, and maybe never will, because the self-image of African-Americans in relation to the dominant culture is an incalculably richer topic than the circle-jerky delusions of “sensitive” white northeasterners. There are glimmers of hope in Portlandia’s attempts to build a faux mythology and turn their Portland into a borderline fairy-tale realm – basically Parks and Recreation’s Pawnee with an actual zip code. I hope they pursue that strategy aggressively because it might shake off the show’s doldrums, and because I want to see more of Kyle MacLachlan. Preferably singing.
* This post accidentally originally referred to the season premiere as the pilot.