Review: The final season of ‘Portlandia’ starts off a little less weird
After four bitingly funny and two still-very-good seasons, “Portlandia” is back for a seventh and final spin in a world much different now than when the show premiered and gained instant cult status. Like the Tolstoy truism, all humor seems less funny now in a multitude of different ways.
For Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, the most immediate hurdles for their comedy are less political and more personal: is anything funny left to say about the specific brand of mid-market, middle-class twee hipster culture they’ve sent up for six seasons? Does hipster culture even exist anymore?
They’ve got political hurdles to deal with, too, though. The show had a public falling out with the bookstore where the “Women & Women First” bits were filmed — a falling out the bookstore said was due in part to the transphobic nature of those sketches. In addition, “Portlandia” has always been very white, much like Portland itself, and the violence of unexamined white primacy has gotten some media of late (you may have heard). So while the “Portlandia” audience may still find the same kind of jokes funny, they may be less likely to laugh publically.
Armisen has always had an almost disturbing gift for skewering the worst parts of himself as if he’s mocking a near-stranger he has the displeasure of knowing — one of the things that makes “Portlandia” so successful is the utter lack of empathy or kindness for many of its characters, relying solely (and successfully) on the charm of Armisen and Brownstein to make the failings of these awful people worth watching.
If the “The Storytellers” (Jan. 5) is representative, “Portlandia” will try to avoid repeating the things that have attracted past critique by shifting its parodic gaze outside of the hyper-specific targets of the Pacific Northwest. It’s a safe choice, but one that brings broader humor that’s missing a lot of the cynical/silly punch of past seasons.
The Weirdos (the goth couple) have always been sort of an easy joke: goths look anachronistic (purposefully so) just about anywhere outside of a late period Tim Burton film, and “Portlandia” has never really given The Weirdos anything very surprising to do. In this episode, the premise of putting them in a Bed, Bath and Beyond seemed so facile that we watched the entire sketch waiting for the kicker that never came.
A two-part sketch about awkward hotel interactions ended stronger than it started: in a setup I’m sure I’ve seen somewhere before, a hotel guest (played by Vanessa Bayer) gamely struggled to rid her hotel room of Armisen’s helpful bellhop, determined to explain the process of operation of every item in her hotel room.
The second part of the sketch hit that “oh, other people hate this too?” specificity that Portlandia does so well. Armisen returned as a different hotel employee, this one delivering room service and determined to helpfully and slowly unwrap each of the items on the cart — including an unopened bottle of beer and a ceramic tray of sugar packets — all puzzlingly, maddeningly covered in plastic wrap. It fully and painfully captured the discomfort of having to make small talk with a stranger while locked inside what is, essentially, one’s bedroom.
Funny though it was, there was absolutely nothing Portland- or even hipster-specific about that sketch. In fact, it seemed tailored more to people who travel frequently and get room service meal delivery from their hotels, which is definitely the “Portlandia”-as-show audience but not really the Portlandia-as-culture demographic.
The through line gave us a series of vignettes in which Carrie and Fred (characters played by Brownstein and Armisen), seek out help from a storytelling coach (Claire Danes) after an embarrassing failure to provide interesting anecdotes at a party. It is a bold move, and very close to the old adage not to name your movie something like “Flop,” or “Real Stinker,” to tell a story about how you have no interesting stories to tell, or an interesting way to tell them. These sketches don’t have a lot of humor — the Fred and Carrie segments are always more of a slow burn — but it does have something that is relatively rare on the show: a kindness for its characters. When, after putting so much work into their delivery, Fred and Carrie are met with the bored faces of a crowd who just didn’t care about the message, it doesn’t come off as embarrassing or irritating — it just feels disappointing, an incredibly relatable emotion that doesn’t show up much in (American) comedy.
The final season of “Portlandia” may be a long version of a show saying, “it’s okay, I’m ready to go” — which seems like the perfect time to introduce empathy for a show this inward-facing, and shows that it might still have some surprises left.
“Portlandia” airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on IFC.