The second episode of the second season of Portlandia revolves around a duo, played by Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen, engaged in the winter sport favored by most Portland couples: a marathon session of watching cable-television episodes, in this case Battlestar Galatica. On the fifth day, surrounded by beer glasses and Hot Lips boxes, Brownstein gets a phone call. “So,” she flatly informs Armisen, “I lost my job.” The calamity is not startling: Hobbies in Portlandia are constantly escalating into crises. The surprise is that she has a job.
Portlandia’s new season features the Brownstein/Armisen characters—some new ones, most recurring from the first run—in many settings. They drink cocktails in Central, they go tubing on the Sandy River, and they attempt a wedding in Cathedral Park. What they never do is work. With the exception of two newscasters covering an Allergy Pride Parade, the only visibly employed protagonists are Toni and Candace, the feminist bookstore owners who do everything in their power to avoid moving retail. (After annoying an air-conditioning repairman into accepting their tip jar as payment, they consider alternative revenue models. “I guess we could try to sell some books,” Toni concedes.) In an era when the best TV comedies—The Office, Party Down, Parks and Recreation—have been centered on the workplace, Portlandia reaches back for the dream of the ’90s as represented by Seinfeld and Friends. It’s set in a lifestyle destination where people take their leisure gravely serious.
Brownstein has insisted that Portlandia isn’t a satire; the first three episodes of a more carefully balanced Season 2 support her claim. It’s a horror show about happiness. The residents get too much of what they want, and obsess over the proper and moral forms of gratification. When the series is in top form, they hone privilege to an art: Brownstein specializes in the screaming tantrum, while Armisen identifies the many flavors of satisfied milquetoast. (At the wedding, he thanks a friend who “taught me to listen to music...the right way.”) Or sometimes they just indulge. The crafting twosome Bryce Shivers and Lisa Eversman, who coined “Put a bird on it!,” have a new catchphrase, “We can pickle that!” As they toss increasingly unpleasant objects into jars of brine, Lisa maintains a beaming smile while belching up a pickled shoe.
The entire show tends to inspire a roil of queasiness. Season 1’s propensity for bad sex has thankfully not returned, but director Jonathan Krisel still ratchets the mock-heroic tension into something unrecognizable and cacophonous. This can be very funny, as when uptight bobos Kath and David bring their rules to the Sandy, and the holiday culminates in a rafting accident out of The River Wild, but with absolutely no stakes. More often, however, skits end in some frantic battle or death. Heads roll, bodies shatter. When play is this much misery, it is tempting to turn off the television and go to work.
But if the payoffs are often bilious, the setups are sharp. Portland should be smug that its flagship TV show is set in a paradise that requires finding trouble. And Portlandia’s vision of the world outside city limits is far more hellish. In the best bit I’ve seen this season, Brownstein and Armisen leave Oregon briefly in the first episode, on a quest to retrieve their favorite cocktail mixologist (played by Andy Samberg). They are briefly marooned in an L.A. theme restaurant chain, Around the World in 80 Plates, that becomes an infernal mirror of the Portland farm-to-table cafe where the chickens have personal-history files. “Would you like to Lobsterate your meal?” asks the server. “We just put a lobster on top of the meal. It’s an extra $31.99.” Down here, people can’t even do excess the right way. Fortunately, our heroes escape and find their bartender. They persuade him to quit his job.
70 SEE IT: Portlandia premieres on IFC at 10 pm Friday, Jan. 6. Free screenings at the Hollywood Theatre at 10 pm and Mission Theater at 7 and 10 pm, with variety show “The Friday Night TV Party & Theater Club Neighborhood Association” in between.