“I’m tired! My dogs are barking, my calves are mooing, can’t you hear them?”
2014 has so far been a particularly explosive year for sketch shows, with Inside Amy Schumer delivering up consistently fantastic takes on feminism and double standards while Broad City came on the scene and threw down a nearly perfect debut season with great writing and physical humor. To say the least, it’s left Portlandia with a lot of competition as far as nailing the troubled quirky youthful indie heart of modern urban life, but Fred and Carrie aren’t the same ThunderAnt-fresh underdogs they were in 2011 – the show’s a hit, and IFC has already ordered a fifth season. On one hand, season 4 allowed the pair to spend more time exploring their more subtle characters, but on the other hand it was much less catchy and, compared to last season, less fresh. It seems like the once-little show is struggling through a transition into fully realized sketch/sitcom/music video hybrid, and season 4 serves as an awkward yet often rewarding growth spurt.
The most notably different element of Portlandia’s fourth season was the lack of a big catchy signature moment. Season 1 had “Dream of the ‘90s” and “Put a Bird on It,” season 2 had “We Can Pickle That,” and season 3 had “Take Back MTV,” which were all punchy, quotable, trademark Portlandia-style segments that marked the show’s varying points in its own evolution. That’s not to say season 4 is completely devoid of standout sketches – “Disappointing Gay” and Kumail Nanjiani’s date fact checker were just the right amount of weird and funny and k.d. lang’s comedic delivery completely stole the finale – but Portlandia went broader this year with its world, characters, and streams of thought, which gave the season a sense of underlying exhaustion that at times seemed more trapped in its own conventions rather than setting out to uncover the newest oddball trait or habit.
On the other hand, relaxing a little on all fronts gave Fred and Carrie’s recurring characters some breathing room to develop through some very real, however strange situations such as Doug and Claire’s decision to share finances or Nina and Lance’s pregnancy scare (Nina and Lance continue to be my favorite characters; the Feminist Bookstore ladies might be the most quotable, but Nina and Lance are the most real, inventive, and hilarious fictional duo on the show). There was a certain push-and-pull at work this season between the once-little sketch show and big, developed character study, and we won’t know until next season whether it’s transitional or just Fred, Carrie, and crew playing with the parameters.
Director and cowriter Jonathan Krisel has been juggling Portlandia with Kroll Show on top of his upcoming television collaboration with Zach Galifianakis and Louis C.K. It’s easy to take Krisel’s signature style for granted on Portlandia and Kroll Show; it’s become a character of its own by infusing both shows with unexpected and whimsical sound effects and slick scene styling that ranges from homemade Kickstarter video to romantic slow-mo beach-set music video. While Portlandia’s approach to sketches slightly changes from year to year, Krisel’s guidance keeps it grounded as he and the main duo slightly tweak their assisting writers each year. There’s no doubt that as long as Krisel is at the helm, Portlandia can go anywhere without losing itself – or becoming the very thing it once parodied.
(Slightly unrelated but necessary sidenote: IFC seemed to push synergy-friendly marketing into Portlandia more than ever this season between the Subaru-sponsored Super Bowl-timed tailgating sketches and some very misleading Portlandia-esque commercial spots with that damn Geico pig, which doesn’t really work for the gently anti-consumerist spirit of the show the way it did for the very “sell-out” world of 30 Rock or the way Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert openly mock their Comedy Central sponsors on their respective shows. This is to no fault of the Portlandia crew, but this season seemed to carry a lot of IFC ad weight on its shoulders, which was more of a restriction than clever creative/financial network symbiosis.)
Portlandia’s fifth season will film this summer and Armisen has called the show his top priority before Late Night and his other pile of gigs, so it seems hopeful – especially after last night’s absurd and epic moon-powered feminist labia flood-stopper movement – that the show might push itself further into that kind of absurdity next year. Portlandia has long mastered skewering the super-specific mannerisms, behaviors, trends, and movements of the food co-op/holistic bike riding set with effortless ease; I’d love to see it venture off into, then conquer, some new and louder territory. It had the perfect opportunity to do so with “Late in Life Drug Use,” but instead of showing the anticipated scene where square couple Brendan and Michelle finally drink some druggy tea, the show simply cut from their overplanned nervousness to smug post-bad trip (and notably unenlightened) attitude, POLICE, WE ARE ON DRUGS hoodies and all.
Of course skipping over the fun drug part is part of the point, but maybe it was just the suggestion of a mind-opening trip a la Roger Sterling on Mad Men that gave me an itch to see Portlandia perform under the influence of a mind-bending substance, or at least rise to a new level of exploring all the weird and sometimes dark corners of both the hip and the helplessly unhip. Or maybe I’m just spoiled by the always-inventing and never-jaded nature of Portlandia, the prime rapport between Carrie and Fred, and their willingness to get a little shaky while pulling apart their own world.