Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s sketch comedy series “Portlandia” is, very much, a show of our time, and not just because it skewers the obsessions and neuroticisms of the cosseted and well-meaning urban bourgeoisie, the subset of Americans, found in many locations other than Portland, that are so concerned with living right they cannot enjoy that they are already living well, and so obsess upon minutiae — what they eat, what they drink, what they do with their leisure time — as though these things can provide the satisfaction a materially abundant life has not. “Portlandia” is both a gentle skewering of this supremely privileged lifestyle — the one that considers a friend’s extravagant birthday party an ultra-serious event, one worth taking a bank loan out for — and an embodiment of it, because you have to be familiar with the extravagant birthday party to laugh at such a “Portlandia” sketch.
But Portlandia is also a TV show of our time because it barely needs to be watched like a TV show. In fact, it is best not watched as a TV show (i.e., one episode per sitting), but instead as a steady flow of Internet videos, delivered throughout the work week. Like, increasingly, “Saturday Night Live,” “Portlandia” is a show that, episode by episode, is exactly as good as its best sketch. And so to say that the third season of “Portlandia,” which begins tonight on IFC, is far more uneven, tired and at times dramatically unfunny than seasons past is basically irrelevant, because the best stuff is still viral-video-ready. There’s a sketch about the hegemony of spoilers that is nearly perfect. Playing directly to the insatiable ’90s-nostalgia demographic is an extended bit about reclaiming MTV that includes cameos from Kurt Loder and Tabitha Soren (and Matt Pinfield). There’s an entire episode dedicated to the aforementioned epic birthday party, which has some weak moments — including a thankless cameo from No Doubt — but also one where Armisen dances an “authentic” Spanish dance on a table top, all wondrous derangement, and Patton Oswalt plays a master at the comic Evite response (catch him at RSVPfest).
In an interview, Carrie Brownstein said that this season she and Fred were increasingly concerned with character, as opposed to the particular obsessions of a certain kind of Portlander. But the new season belies this: Character may be what’s relevant to “Portlandia’s” writers, but the sketches concern themselves with the same pet observations and peeves as always. There’s the sketch about natural deodorant that doesn’t work, what happens when you eat a heavy lunch at work, the desperate pedi-cab driver, hotels that don’t have enough outlets, zucchini milk being the new milk — before berry juice is the new milk.
Armisen and Brownstein’s focus on character may explain why some of the sketches feel so tired — they’re less concerned with timeliness than before. The recurring sketch in the first episode is about Peter’s — of Peter and Nance — pasta-as-crack addiction, a joke that seems recycled from the heights of the Atkins diet fad. In the sketch about how MTV has “been compromised” and co-opted by tweens, Brownstein’s character notes that MTV hasn’t shown music videos for years, so why try to take it over now? The answer is, obviously, that now Armisen and Brownstein could get Soren and Loder and Pinfield to play along. And if I never see another sketch about Women & Women First – the easiest targets in “Portlandia’s” entire repertoire, and also the most unredeemably incompetent and annoying — it will be too soon.
But for all these missteps, “Portlandia” remains fascinating, and not just for the handful of great sketches that keep it afloat. “Portlandia’s” favorite subject is people who care too much, and it’s a perfectly landed sucker punch that over three seasons so few of its characters — people who are easily obsessed by the provenance of meat, with gender pronouns, with the authenticity of paella, with the perfect gift knot, with a tied-up dog — are concerned with any politics other than political correctness. “Portlandia” serves up its satire with a light touch, but taken altogether it is an ethnography of the supremely vacuous, people for whom taking over the MTV office constitutes a “revolution.” This season there’s a sketch in which Brownstein and Armisen play millennials who can’t find jobs and are living at home. They want to write a song, “something political,” a “protest song,” about their experience, but every time they try it turns into a club anthem with the chorus “change the world, one party at a time.” This is the most overtly political sketch of the season — and it’s about how even politics are helpless before dubstep.