‘Portlandia’ 's latest season premiere shines, though not brightly

NOSELL

NOSELL
IFC

 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017 - 1:54pm

Following its fifth season, “Portlandia” was renewed for not one but two new seasons. IFC can’t get enough of Fred Armisen (“SNL”) and Carrie Brownstein (“Transparent”), the dynamic duo and co-creators/stars of the sketch series. And neither can audiences. The show’s quirky comedy lives on the edge of the primarily parodic sketch humor it employs, with characters and scenes ranging from affably satirical to grotesquely bizarre.

Yet after seven seasons, it’s become clear that Armisen and Brownstein have no shortage of crazy comedy to dole out within a structure that serves boundlessly as a vessel for their original content. Their sketches turn themselves and their audiences on their heads, employing every sharp tool of wit and over-the-top performance to push the boundaries of their fictionalized version of Portland, Ore. 

While the miscellany of content and apt parody typically work to the benefit of the show’s inexhaustible writing and humor, the season premiere suffered under the lack of a cohesive tone. As we’re shuffled from scene to scene, one sketch swells from subtle, acute humor to slapstick visual comedy and subsequent disappointment for both its fictional characters and the audience at home.

Perhaps this last sketch is designed self-reflexively, poking fun at the difficulty of engrossing storytelling. In it, Armisen and Brownstein play a couple desperate to dazzle dinner guests with an impressive anecdote. After hearing their friends recount how Tom Hanks pretended to mug them in Venice, the couple goes to extreme lengths, soliciting the help of a performing arts teacher (Claire Danes, “Homeland”) to instruct them in the art of dramatic storytelling.

However, the result of their efforts is less art and more artifice. The couple shocks their guests with a dramatic retelling (drum beating and vibraslap ringing included) of what is likely the most anticlimactic story ever told, bringing the sketch’s short life to an equally unsatisfying end. Though it’s clear what the sketch is getting at, its predictable (albeit kind of funny) arc falls flat.

Another sketch that fails to fulfill its comedic promise, despite its amusing pretense, is Armisen and Brownstein’s depiction of a couple of another kind: the goth Vince and Jacqueline. As they flip back and forth between deceptively dark personas and Bed, Bath & Beyond-loving stock characters — sometimes abruptly though often too subtly — the two meander through what ultimately turns out to be a half-baked sketch. At each turn, it falls short of its promise to be funny. The Bed, Bath & Beyond employee, seems as unfazed by the characters’ bizarre behavior as we’re expected to feel, but the discrepancy between reality versus expectation just doesn’t achieve the full comedic impact the sketch is designed to accomplish.

In an even more pointless one-part sketch – a commercial selling children’s toys made out of “100 percent organic” men’s beards to expose them to germs early on – the strange humor falls short of making its point or making us laugh. It’s sly and it’s snarky, like much of “Portlandia” ’s best, but it’s a little too on-the-nose.

However, the series still benefits from the aid of returning guest stars like Natasha Lyonne (“Orange Is The New Black”) and Vanessa Bayer (“Saturday Night Live”), who help bring the show’s unconventional characters and scenarios to life with convincing dynamism.

After Bayer, playing a tired traveler, arrives at her hotel, she is met by the the bell boy (Armisen), who relentlessly explains the use and and function of every single hotel room item, from the light switches to the bathrobes. He even embellishes his demonstrations with little theatrical bits, much to the weary guest’s vexation. The simple play on conventional hotel check-in experiences taken to the extreme is a prime example of one of the show’s better executed sketches. The premise sets a perfect background against which Armisen demonstrates his idiosyncratic humor and Bayer plays the great sport that goes along with it all (that is, until she flings herself out her hotel window only to be caught by Armisen, who she’s trying to escape form in the first place).

Though the series premiere isn’t a shining example of Armisen’s and Brownstein’s distinct talents, it nonetheless delivers a compelling enough sequence of sketches that convey their keen awareness of the ingrained and unfortunate circumstances of our society. While not laugh-out-loud hilarious, it still entertains. I’m not convinced though that the comedic duo is by any means settling. The best part of “Portlandia” is that we never know what to expect, and that’s precisely the quality that a show nearing its end must hold on to if it’s to make a charming and memorable exit. Luckily, we have a full season to look ahead to and Armisen and Brownstein aren’t going anywhere anytime soon — except to Bed, Bath & Beyond, that is.