It’s almost hard to believe that the once-underdog IFC show Portlandia is now chugging along into its fourth season on the air with a fifth already ordered by the network. The risk taken in airing what at first seemed too referentially and culturally micro-specific for the masses has paid off for IFC, Fred Armisen, and Carrie Brownstein, and that’s apparent during at least the first few episodes of the new season that premieres tonight at 10:00PM. Before, Portlandia’s main fight was to keep sustaining itself as funny, inventive, and accessible, but the new season feels less like a scrappy struggle and more like a victory lap.
Why? Because Portlandia isn’t an underdog anymore, and tonight’s season premiere doesn’t try to deny that. This season’s first few episodes alone feature Steve Buscemi, Kirsten Dunst, Jeff Goldblum, Olivia Wilde, Kumail Nanjiani, Vanessa Bayer, and Jay Pharoah as well as musical cameos from St. Vincent, Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio, Jello Biafra of Dead Kennedys, and Duff McKagan of Guns N’ Roses. The perspective has heightened a bit as well, with a little less focus on Fred and Carrie as a duo and more on bigger story arcs, supporting characters, and appearances by everyone from writer/director Jonathan Krisel to badass Portland local Ellen Bloodworth to the voice of Fred’s mom: “I love you Freddy!”
One of my biggest takeaways from the first few episodes is what a spectacular transition Carrie Brownstein has made over the years from a musician with a knack for deadpan comic timing to a full-blown comedy star who also happens to be an alt rock musician. As Portlandia progresses, her collection of Portland types – from financially responsible girlfriends to romantically distant boyfriends to foxy silver-haired eco activists – have begun stealing every laugh for miles. Even when Fred’s wearing a wig and dress and pitching up his voice as the naggy girly-girl Nina, Carrie shines as her aloof, emotionally distant, and wifebeater-wearing boyfriend Lance. (Apologies to the Feminist Bookstore ladies for use of the term “wifebeater.”) Carrie and Fred’s same chill wavelength has a new, less nerdy and abashed confidence now, but they still maintain an outsider edge that keeps Portlandia from resting on its laurels. Fred’s new gig as Late Night’s bandleader and curator will probably help widen Portlandia’s audience even more, and it’ll be interesting to see how he bounces back and forth between these two shows.
As mainstream and Tumblr-friendly as Portlandia has become, its world and beloved recurring characters are still very much the same we’ve come to expect and enjoy, and there’s a magical mix at work between bizarre concepts like feminist car washes and a woman falling in love with an inspirational poster-producing computer versus the most painful realities of the real-life world like a couple opening up their first joint checking account only to have the unemployed one fritter the savings of the other on an outdoor hot tub. Despite already having nearly 30 episodes covering a vast array of Northwest eccentricity, Portlandia still feels fresh, catchy, and original this season, and if you like laughing, getting weirded out, spotting rock star cameos, or following the contagious on-and-off-screen friendship of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, you’ll probably like season 4 just as much as the rest.
Portlandia premieres on IFC tonight at 10:00PM.