Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s Portlandia has amounted to a kind of frenzied pedicab tour of the city of Portland, Oregon by way of Apple Maps. Though residents of the city continue to debate whether or not the series is good for local tourism, cameos by mayor Sam Adams would seem to suggest a loving symbiosis between the city and its fictional depiction. Yet in the show’s third season, Armisen and Brownstein seek to expand both its audience and its relevance, making several excursions outside the city limits.
Portlandia uses titles at the start of each scene to inform viewers of its location, right down to the exact street address. This season’s first episode, however, opens, sans title, on a suburban cul-de-sac that resembles Portland about as much as it does the set of Desperate Housewives or Weeds. We could be anywhere, and that’s the point. Armisen and Brownstein are moving back home alongside many of their peers, victims of a global economic recession. They gather in the street and try to come up with a protest song, but each attempt somehow gets hijacked by dance beats and Ke$ha-inspired lyrics like “Change the world one party at a time/Mind-eraser shots with a hint of lime.” The failed demonstration draws the police, who make arrests by disguising their prison van as a “dance tent.” It’s one of the show’s most bitterly pointed sketches to date, and by excising Portland from the proceedings, Armisen and Brownstein implicate all of their viewers in a collective failure to sustain any kind of political dissent.
Portlandia’s willingness to expand the scope of its satire has ultimately led to something more sustainable, if a little less local.
The series continues its somewhat more combative tone with respect to today’s youth in another music-related sequence set outside Portland’s city limits. Playing old-school punk “Gen Xers,” Armisen and Brownstein recruit Kurt Loder and other symbols of MTV’s heyday to “take back” the network from tweens. They head to Times Square and raid MTV’s headquarters, successfully taking over the airwaves from the head honcho, a world-weary tween girl, who coldly insists “music is dead.” The girl then goes on to point out the irony of nostalgia victims trying to “take back the youth-oriented channel from the youth.” Given that even the older generation refuses to tune in, she turns out to be right. By this point, the depiction of failed revolutions has already become one of the season’s winning comic routines.
When Armisen and Brownstein travel to Seattle in order to recruit new citizens to Portland at the mayor’s (Kyle MacLachlan) behest, their idealism is similarly thwarted. Armisen urges residents to raise their children under the “gospel of Portland,” encouraging the men to bring their bass guitars, but his appeals are ignored. As one resident insists, Seattle has “all the answers”: Kurt Kobain, the Seattle Seahawks, and the Space Needle. The only person who agrees to leave is Alexandra (Chloë Sevigny), a charming free spirit who, thanks to Armisen and Brownstein, is now jobless and homeless in an unknown city.
A jab at raw milk curdles on arrival, and the scene in which a girl spends her entire meditation class fantasizing about the man across from her feels like a joke we’ve already seen a dozen times, but these are exceptions to the rule. Portlandia’s best gags instead all seem to embody a kind of post-Occupy disillusionment, and season three’s less provincial outlook ensures the show’s continued relevance. It’s less intensely fixated on the city from which the series derives its name, and Armisen and Brownstein’s willingness to expand the scope of its satire has ultimately led to something more sustainable, if a little less local.