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Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

'Portlandia' Season 3 Review: Fred et Carrie Pour Toujours

If Portlandia represents the classic hipster, it's now sold out for the mainstream. Real bohemians stick with their deliciously obscure Peabody Awards — they don't go and beat out mainstays like Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show for the Best Comedy/Variety Series at the WGA Awards. But by continually changing and challenging itself this season and straying from quotable bird and pickle-related catchiness in favor of bigger-picture connectivity, Portlandia has managed to transform from an IFC curio into a crossover hit that manages to ride the cutting-edge waves of savvy DIY culture that will be "So Over" by tomorrow. Here are my five biggest takeaways from what I think was Portlandia's strongest season yet:


Unapologetic Specificity
Portlandia's biggest strength has always been its knack for taking specificity to the extreme, and this season it highlighted subjects like steampunk conventions, furniture artists, gay weddings for straight people, conceptual art, professional tip dividers, ménage à trois meadow romps honoring Truffaut, parenting books, and vagina pillows. There were also more sketches not featuring Fred and Carrie than usual, my favorite being the PSA from the Portland Nerd Council that reminds us that you're not a true nerd unless you "get sick with fear talking to people" and frequently use the word "eventing."


Chloë and Kumail: Guest All-Stars
Fred and Carrie built up a rock-solid BFF connection during the first two seasons, and their platonic love for each other was finally put to the test this year by Portland newcomer, homewrecker, and "cultural tease" Alexandra, played to the kookiest of heights by Chloë Sevigny. Kumail Nanjiani's shown up in past seasons (most memorably as the irritating server in "Around the World In 80 Plates") and leads the Portlandia-centric web series Kumail Tours Portlandia, and his delivery as pitch-perfect buzzkills like the birthday loan officer and Oregon Power customer service rep gave this season just the right dose of finicky fine print-loving annoyance. (Other cameos this season: Jim Gaffigan, Patton Oswalt as a famous RSVPer, No Doubt in a hot-air balloon, Roseanne Barr as Portland's temp mayor, George Wendt, Bobby Moynihan, Jack White mystically christening a hyperlocal recording studio, Juliette Lewis, J Mascis, Dirty Projectors, Matt Lucas, Kurt Loder, Tabitha Soren, Matt Pinfield, Martina Navratilova, Jeff Goldblum, Rose Byrne, Matt Berry, Maria Thayer, and Bill Hader as an Australian spirit animal named Birdman.)

More Jonathan Krisel
One of my biggest takeaways from last season was a yearning to see more cameos by the show's lovable, shaggy-haired director Jonathan Krisel, and I was glad to see those dreams come true this year. Krisel also directs Kroll Show on Comedy Central and has made a few cameos there as well. For Portlandia he most memorably returned as new MTV veejay Sk8rdOOd, who counts down the top ten afternoon snacks and polls audience members as to whether babysitters are "Dope or Nope." Bonus points for a cameo from Krisel's baby son Wolfgang, who has the cutest IMDB page in the world.

Mr. Mayor the Mountain Man
After throwing his laser printer into the Willamette River in a fit of self-disgust, Mr. Mayor quit his job and moved into the mountains this year, which gave us plenty of scenes involving a dirty bearded Kyle MacLachlan at one with the gorgeous Northwest wilderness a la Kurtz in Apocalypse Now and speaking only in Nell-like intonations, which helped reunite Fred and Carrie over the common goal of rescuing him from nature overload by season's end.


Interconnectivity
Portlandia's many recurring characters and sketches connected and overlapped more than ever this year, and it resulted in a season that took its time exploring character arcs rather than compartmentalizing each sketch into an instant gratification-friendly format. Nina's overly planned birthday party earlier in the season (in which Fred and Carrie played multiple characters in the same scene) is a top tier example, and to a lesser effect the citywide blackout in the series finale (does Portland really pay for its residents' electricity all in one giant bill?) and the Portland Milk Advisory Board commercial breaks (and the oh-so-slowly churning tension between Alicia and her boss Royce), which were a useful device for transitioning between the show and commercial breaks and made my DVR fast-forwarding a very tricky experience. Well played, IFC.


Fred & Carrie
Since its 2011 premiere, the heart of what's made Portlandia so successful has always been the real-life bond between Fred and Carrie, so even though they as themselves are just one version of dozens of friends, lovers, and couples gay, straight, voice-modulated, and cross-gendered, I was glad to hear them exchanging vows at season's end ("I'm not Fred without Carrie" — "I'm not Carrie without Fred"). Whether the love is carnal, platonic, or both, these two have a dependable electricity that just works — and that a show like theirs can win so much mainstream acclaim reminds us all that sticking to your inner artsy will always eventually win over your initially dubious grandparents. All it takes are a few seasons and a way to satirize with love over snark.

Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.

  • zander

    Good stuff. Best season yet, and the changes really, really worked. I sure do hope it comes back. "You checked a box for moose head?"