Season 4: Episode 4: Pull Out King

Portlandia (Season 4)

(IFC, Thursdays 10/9 Central)

Feb 27, 2014 Web Exclusive
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Portlandia enters its fourth season tonight. Four seasons! Whodathunkit?! From the waning strains of viral hit "Dream of the '90s (Is Alive in Portland)" to the literally provincial title, it seemed fated to be one-note, despite its instant charms. Well, apparently creators Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen had a long game we didn't see coming, or hired great writers and directors and guests, or all of the above because damned if Portlandia isn't still one of the funniest shows on television.

Actually, as long as there's a salient metropolitan working class whose citizenry remains susceptible to an affectation or 10, Portlandia is and will remain a cutting edge work of zeitgeist art, an SNL for the Girls set. Yes, the show is about Portland but really, in which contemporary major American coastal city (okay, primarily LA, SF, NYC, Austin, and Seattle) can't you find self-righteous bicyclists, diners nit-picking the source of their food, and intimate relationships between myriad partner and gender arrangements? No, it's not just about Portland, but as anyone who has ever visited the city will tell you, Portland is an acute fulcrum of this...phenomenon, an ardent and occasionally humorless bubble where experimenting with the norm eventually obviated the norm.

The season premiere opens with a guest turn from Kirsten Dunst, a new tenant in a huge empty Portland home who becomes haunted by the ubiquitous pairing of Armisen and Brownstein, playing the ghosts of a couple paralyzed by reading too many conflicting self-help pieces published in The New York Times, Slate, and The Atlantic. Part of the brilliance of this conceit is that the paralysis of this phenomenon is quite real, though paying too much earnest lip service to how "damaging" it is for our psyches to absorb so much conflicting information might earn you a few squints. Laughing at it is another kind of salve and an arguably superior one. This is Portlandia at its best, offering an instant rearview mirror on all the "is this really happening?" moments afloat in our culture right now.

Another sketch tucks its commentary into a Woody Allen-esque frame with comedian Kumail Nanjiani playing a professional lie detector hired to determine how much of what Armisen told a first date is true. The whole thing ends up being a riff on the assertion of taste and the general difficulty of being frank about it with people you don't really know yet whom you might like a chance of keeping around. While it may seem ridiculous to wax philosophical about someone too timid to admit they love the film Juno or can't handle spicy food, the sadness of it is that some people really are that fickle. This post-modern tendency to determine partnerships according to the tippy-top of Maslow's hierarchy of needs is so frighteningly particular, well...you can't help but laugh.

If there's anything quantifiably different about this season, it's the confidence of Armisen and Brownstein, now assured that there's mileage in their concept and an audience for it. With several seasons under their belt, they effortlessly inhabit the hundreds of characters that populate their vision of Portland. That vision is simultaneously expanding and tightening. But not nearly as damn serious as any of the above might lead you to believe. Long live Portlandia; here's hoping there's yet more life in you. (www.ifc.com/shows/portlandia)

Author rating: 9/10

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