Through the course of its first three seasons, Portlandia managed to establish itself not only as one of the most astute sketch comedies on television, but also as a distinct creative voice. The series successfully combines formal elements of sketch, satire, film, and popular music in a way that animates the show’s world with a cartoonish buoyancy that, while exposing the contradictions of hipster fussiness and bohemianism, feels affectionate but never glib; the series lampoons attitudes, not people. The most memorable moments hinge on the way in which a punchline or character archetype is turned slightly askew by an off-the-cuff gesture or personality quirk, which itself often becomes, via tight editing and sound design, a conspicuous feature of the show’s comedic rhythms. More than anything, Portlandia’s aesthetic is a musically conscious one, and, in its fourth season, it’s this peculiar self-awareness that continues to be the show’s greatest strength.
Such a sensibility is often best expressed in the show’s shorter pieces, as in an early-season sketch featuring a somewhat uptight, outdoorsy couple, Dave (Fred Armisen) and Kath (Carrie Brownstein). Faced with a 15-minute free-parking limit in downtown Portland, the couple crams in as many errands as comically possible into the time frame. Dave and Kath’s compressed energy becomes almost tangible in the way shots are woven together more and more tightly until the sketch defuses, fittingly, on a note of sexual release. A similar momentum is created in another piece in which Carrie becomes increasingly overwhelmed by social-media obligations and seeks help from an authorized Human Bandwidth Manager (Kumail Nanjiani) who proposes, in great deadpan, that she absolve herself of all “social-media debt.” It’s a premise the series has visited before, yet here the humor takes on a dark undertone as a deluge of social-media notifications pop up on the screen, threatening to engulf Carrie from all angles, until she decides to have her digital footprint wiped out. It’s the spectral twist at the end of the swiftly paced sketch, though, in which Carrie herself is erased entirely from Fred’s memory, that makes its premise resonate.
While Brownstein and Armisen’s terrific improv abilities give pieces like these an edge of spontaneity, it’s Portlandia’s director, Jonathan Krisel, who keeps the humor focused. Essentially the third member of the show’s comic team, Krisel functions something like a drummer in a band, responsible for mapping the show’s visual terrain and setting the pace of its characters’ development since season one. Krisel’s strengths as a director of sketch comedy are perhaps most evident in his work for Adult Swim’s Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, a series whose absurdist, experimental vision Portlandia directly draws from. Whereas most other sketch shows would have outstripped their initial vitality by this point, what makes season four of Portlandia especially compelling is that we get to watch how the comedic minds behind the series work through the creative challenge of bringing new dimension to its interlocking world of characters while keeping the comedy fresh. Which is to say, Portlandia has reached a critical phase in a broader trajectory.
It’s the longer, story-oriented sketches of season four that put this into perspective. In the episode “Sharing Finances,” one of the show’s recurring suburban couples, Doug (Armisen) and Claire (Brownstein), decide to take the next step in their relationship by setting up a shared bank account. What at first seems like a banal premise is saved by a broadly staged sight gag in the third act in which underemployed Doug surprises Claire with the utterly ridiculous purchase of a Jacuzzi for their front yard. Given the space of a multi-act structure, the couple’s dynamic is explored from a new angle while hilariously lampooning the expectations involved in adult relationships. “Pull-Out King” takes a similar tack by showing Portlandia’s most intriguing couple, girly Nina (Armisen) and butch Lance (Brownstein), in the throes of a pregnancy scare. The initial surprise of the setup (the very thought of Nina and Lance raising a baby induces a chortle) transitions obliquely into an amusing confrontation between Lance and the proprietor (Jeff Goldblum) of a local furniture store about who rightly deserves to be called “The Pull-Out King.” The pun is, admittedly, a crass one, but the sketch manages to explore that crassness for the remainder of the episode without condescending to either its characters or its audience.
Such commitment hints that Portlandia is aiming for something larger than the bite-sized, Internet-ready sketches that keep sites like Funny or Die in business. Armisen, Brownstein, and Krisel are effectively crafting a multi-faceted comedy art project, the unfolding of which is both exciting and hysterical to watch.