When a dutiful writer for a local neighborhood newspaper comes into the Women & Women First bookstore in the season-five premiere of Portlandia, he’s just looking for a short blurb explaining what the store offers and when it’s open. Instead, Toni and Candace (Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen) present him with “The Story of Toni and Candace,” an exploration of how the testy, endlessly chastising pair met and found their way to the ever-so-alien city of Portland. Unspooling as an homage/parody of Mike Nichols’s Working Girl, relocating its mergers-and-acquisitions square-off to the world of B. Dalton in 1992, the episode represents what feels like a modest but noticeable shift in focus for the venerable series, one that suggests the unpredictable rhythms and variations in tone and mood of Louie’s fourth season.
Much like “The Story of Toni and Candace” expands on the backstory of the prickly booksellers, “The Fiancée” addresses the future of Lance (Brownstein) and Nina’s (Armisen) relationship. Lance’s hesitance to tie the knot is compounded by the fact that his mother is about to get married for the sixth time. Much of the episode takes place in a therapist’s office, where the couple clumsily tries to connect Lance’s fear of abandonment with his mother’s latest engagement, and these scenes speak to what Portlandia has always been about: the alienating practices that go into trying to be socially and personally responsible, or even forward-thinking. And the series has always been willing to show how these progressions can so easily lapse into a brazenly false sort of self-importance, an element which has consistently kept Armisen and Brownstein’s characters feeling human, even as their vision of Portland seems forever perched on the lip of the absurd.
And yet, the nuts and bolts of the stories and sketches that Armisen and Brownstein create are of the bracingly familiar. “The Fiancée” opens with a DIY commercial for event photography, the same kind you’ve no doubt seen played once a month during the local news or posted on your Facebook feed, and later Lance’s future stepfather, Justin (Justin Long), sports a GoPro to record part of a rather ambitious engagement video. These people are your co-workers, old roommates, exes, and everyday acquaintances, and as often as the show’s creators make their philosophies and habits the butt of the joke, they neither condescend nor flatter these characters. For however strange it might seem at first to see Justin and Lance’s mom (Gretchen Corbett) indulging in PDA and romantically embracing, the writers, and the performers, find an enduring sweetness in their union, as well as how they influence Lance’s feelings on commitment.
If the insights into modern existence on Portlandia never seem quite as profound as those on Louie, the series continues to brandish a view of gender that’s almost casually radical. The fact that the stars cross-dress is crucially never the lynchpin of any joke, and notions of feminism, homosexuality, and transvestitism are expressed with a lack of preciousness and caution that escapes most sitcoms. The end of “The Tale of Toni and Candace” features a call for female solidarity in the face of overwhelming misogyny in the corporate world. That this call to action happens to occur as Toni and Candace are fleeing a preposterous party on an enormous yacht, which allows the stars and writers another chance to mock the machinations of white businessmen and their bloated self-entitlement, is pointed and hilariously absurd, as is the way Toni and Candace fumble through the climactic rallying cry. The beliefs that are the substratum of the laughs, however, are sincere and moving every so often, just not delicate or without a sense of self-awareness. Portlandia renders the strange, unique, and beguiling both alluring and welcoming, precisely because there’s never any sense that those qualities are mutually exclusive or exempt anyone from the sheer awkwardness of being human.