The fifth season of Fred Armisen's hipster sketch show Portlandia premieres tonight, and if you spend enough time reading about the comedian online, you'll be left with two impressions: First, that he's funny and charming. And second, that his charm and humor mask something of a reputation. For what exactly depends on whom you ask, but here are some adjectives that have been used to describe him over the years: "womanizer," "sociopath," "traumatizing," and, from Armisen himself, "terrible."
If you've ever wondered what separates New York's toughest accent (The Bronx) from its second-toughest (The Rockaways), how East Villagers talk differently from their counterparts on the West, or why Long Islanders sound so flabbergasted all the time, allow Fred Armisen and his considerable improv skills to demonstrate.
Tonight's season finale of Portlandia was a rather different beast than previous episodes: instead of a series of sketches with one recurring story, "Brunch Village" was one story that brought a few characters together. While it wasn't as strong as some previous episodes, the journey that Peter took from indecisive wimp to conquering hero was well rendered, with the added layer of him claiming a decisive victory over indecision. Plus, lampooning brunch is right in the show's wheelhouse.
The best sketch from an otherwise subpar episode of Portlandia featured Fred and Carrie doing another experiment with off-beat entrepreneurialism. In the past, we've seen them try to be movers who only biked across town or environmentalists who start their own recycling firm. This week, they were bike valets, in a sketch that highlights the contradiction between Portland's earthy bike culture and the service-y realm of valet parking. The business didn't work, but the sketch sure did.
Some of the best Portlandia sketches are pseudo-commercial types where characters attempt to sell not just a product but a way of live to us. In this sketch, twins Marcus and Madeleine attempt to sell us recycling, their particular brand of recycling, and it comes off great. The constant asides, the subtle music cues, and the hilarious prop at the end make for a great sketch.
Tonight's episode of Portlandia was especially strong, crafting great sketches from the subjects right in its wheelhouse: the inability to remain cool as we age and the infantilization of male hipsters. This sketch brought them both together superbly, as Fred and Carrie swapped genders to bring back Nina and Lance. It's a great bit of commentary about our reliance on technology and the power struggle inherent to any relationship. Also, that completely superfluous fart sound effect is perfect.
Sometimes Portlandia delivers biting social satire of about how lame it is to be cool and sometimes it serves up something a little more absurd. On tonight's episode, Fred and Carrie discover that the key to music stardom is including a cat in their band, which leads to them being taken hostage by guest star Kristin Wiig.
The first sketch of IFC's Portlandia was about how Portland, Oregon is stuck in the 1990's. Now that the series is right in the middle of its second season, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein are revising that thesis: Portland is actually stuck in the 1890's, what with the microbrews, the beards, and the general aesthetic of lumberjack chic. Portlandia does a great job of critiquing the posturing that is meant to pass as cool and this sketch really nails it. It also includes one of the series' great lines when Carrie realizes what's happening in Portland and declares, "it's like if President McKinley was never assassinated."