This year's 67th Annual Primetime Emmys made two big changes: It expanded the eligible voting pool, and it added an Outstanding Variety Series. That means there's finally an award for sketch comedies separate from usual late night talk shows. Naturally, a frenzy of speculation over who would win followed. Fans made strong cases for Key & Peele (misogynists), Inside Amy Schumer (racists), Drunk History (people who no longer watch full episodes of television) and Saturday Night Live (people who no longer watch television).
Alas, even the most breathless prognosticators failed to make much of a case for Portlandia. In its fifth season, the series has hit a comfortable, obscure middle age and is largely written off—even the one group presumably forever intertwined with the success of Portlandia: Portlanders
Given the rapidly changing face of our city, a certain segment of denizens were bound to dislike the show most responsible for globally popularizing whatever the Portland brand means nowadays. But shouldn't a homegrown boosterism have also taken hold? Yes, some talent was imported, the venture turned a profit, and the entire enterprise highlights a corresponding rise in civic ambitions, but folks eventually forgave the Trailblazers those same failings. Despite a pervasive belief that the skits are potshots hacked out slumming Hollywood pros, the producer is actually a born-and-bred local with impeccable indie credentials, and most episodes arrive overstocked with PDX luminaries and winks to Puddletown past.
The argument that Portlandia's responsible for the wave of gentrification raising rents and hemorrhaging jobs? Fractured causality aside, the show has been an unimaginable boon for local film production. The insistence that it concentrates only upon exploiting the newest trends of arriviste interlopers? Today's manic briner was fermenting kombucha last decade and spent the nineties hopping homebrew. The nightmare about a rock star and celeb comic crashing your house party and shining a spotlight on your most embarrassing habits? Sure, that happened, but they brought Jeff Goldblum and Chloe Sevigny!
Perhaps we've been spoiled, but the guest list for Portlandia's fifth season didn't seem quite as daunting as year's past. "Portland Mayor" Kyle MacLachlan remained in office and spurred conspiratorial rumors of immortality by printing himself on postcards sold at the airport. Among familiar faces, Ed Begley Jr. played a long-suffering doctor, Parker Posey played an addled fashionista, Steve Buscemi played a lonely landlord and Goldblum double-dipped as karaoke coach and San Diego time-share shill. After a few thousand tweets noted their uncanny resemblance, Justin Long appeared as prospective step-father to Carrie Brownstein's porn-stached "Lance." And the inalienable rights of the weird were defended with memorable elan by Paul Reubens' crusading defense attorney.
With far fewer characters introduced—the Goth couple rumored to meet Danzig are one exception—the show spent more time on past personas and its humor emphasized characters above situations. In a well-publicized departure from form, three episodes focused upon just single a storyline each. This move away from the sketch-show structure made for some listless stretches, but was on the whole more satisfying.
The season opened with an episode about how feminist bookstore owners Toni and Candace first met in 90s Manhattan, for better (meta-commentary on the flashbacks' overuse of era-signifiers) or worse (the *sigh* dance-off). Structured around a taxidermy shop arson and the ensuing anti-weirdo pogrom, the faux-procedural finale brought back Olivia Wilde to explain the back story of her party-girl eco-terrorist. Long's impersonation of Brownstein's impersonation of a man was never not funny, and when aging hipsters Brandon and Michelle began dealing raw milk to sustain their own newly-acquired addiction, their characters are hilariously selfish. Taken as a near four hour binge, the Buscemi-directed homeowners episode felt weakest—a thin and predictable meandering through first world problems that featured former real life mayor Sam Adams and Armisen and Brownstein as a chaste couple struggling to make appearances at every friend-hosted 4th of July party.
The show walks a tightrope: Targeted jokes risk insularity, but the broader spoofs often feel hackneyed. Having only two regular stars limits the show's potential (and confuses casual watchers with poor wig-recall). But a viewer's experience depends almost entirely on the viewing platform. With an entire season at your fingertips, you can indulge in the less patently comic passages. But those same scenes are rightly annoying to super fans watching on TV, sticking through commercials only to find long cuts replacing the scattershot gags of years past.
Even the fiercest Portlandia acolytes don't enjoy every character equally. Unlike other TV shows' devotees, Portlandians issue demands (double the Toni & Candace, hold the Nance & Peter) like ordering pizza. To a certain extent, Armisen and Brownstein brought this on themselves. The show started from disjointed improv skits, and by appearing as "themselves" in so many episodes, they willingly indulge the wish-fulfillment scenarios of countless amateur comedians and film-school dropouts. A creative-class hero is something to be.
But the show's real focus has always been on the zeroes side of the digital life—that creeping societal alienation enabled by modern convenience and justified by modern culture. Portlandia's denizens are that teensiest shade worse than you and me because they wholly abandon care for other people, but they're far from unrecognizable. It's as much an absurdist exaggeration of the millennial fallacy that everyone is special as it is a sardonic elegy for the Boomers' empathy-through-consumption ethos.
Portlandia can't be blamed for jumping on Portland's current city-of-the-moment trend with expert timing. As Armisen and Brownstein have said a million times, any city would've served their purpose. The show's foundational genius was somehow making the worst people in the world a bit lovable. In a way, Portlandia's true subject is nothing less than the infuriating realization that others matter. After all, just as each troll on Reddit begrudgingly accepts the necessity of a forum in order to be heard, even the most thoroughly 21st Century boys and girls must grasp the importance of a greater good. However irritating the notion, we're still defined by our relationships with others, but a community of defiant individualists can be marvelous to watch.
See it: Portlandia Season 5 is available on Netflix, IFC, Amazon, iTunes, or Google Play.