Where to begin with PORTLANDIA? Well, if you’re like THE DAILY ROTATION site runner Jeremy Lebens who has never seen A SINGLE EPISODE of the show, I would advise you turn to Netflix streaming or wherever you can see seasons 1 & 2. Why? Because I’m here to review the DVD/Blu release of PORTLANDIA season 3, and frankly this season couldn’t exist without the other two (obviously). Not just chronologically, but all the world-building writers and stars FRED ARIMSEN and CARRIE BROWNSTEIN put into the first two seasons make for a third season that feels (and was designed to be) more like a 220 minute movie than just ten 22-minute series of sketches, which the two previous seasons had been.
All the groundwork and characters created in the first two seasons—Peter and Nance, Dave and Kath, Spyke and Iris, Nina and Lance, Toni and Candace, the Rats, and many more (all played by Brownstein and Arimsen in various gender roles), each character a defined individual at this point with growing complexities, moving light-years beyond their one-note “Aren’t Portland Hipsters funny?!” they started as. Even “Fred” and “Carrie” are characters in the show. In the past, they’ve usually been “themselves” in sketches involving interactions with Portland’s MR MAYOR (played by Kyle MacLachlan, in what I feel to be his greatest role ever and will go toe-to-toe with anyone who disagrees), but even in season three “Fred” and “Carrie” are given a larger arc and depth to their best friends/co-ed roommates scenario.
So, how to write about PORTLANDIA season 3 without giving away too many spoilers? Hmm, I guess I’ll just take PORTLANDIA’s own view on NO SPOILERS and proceed thusly:
While season 3 continues its celebration of Portland’s “Never-Never Land for Hipsters and People Who Never Want the 1990’s to Die”, it also (just as always) embraces the towns charm for these very reasons. What can I say? I live in Minneapolis. You might not be aware of this, but Minneapolis and Portland are (not what I would call arch-nemesis’) but rather America’s greatest Green Revolution/Hipster rivals: Bikes, coffee shops, boutiques, music and art mecca’s, and everything else that makes our two cities beautiful and unique places to live. So I get and appreciate what Armisen and Brownstein are doing.
But as I said, this season, unlike the previous two, plays out as more or less one big story with many off-shoot sketches to entertain and delight in-between the main plots. Don’t be fooled though, the first episode on disk one is a between-season Winter Special, that is easily the weakest of the 11 episodes split between the two disks. Not that it is particularly unfunny, it’s just when the REAL episode one kicks off and the season gets rolling, the Winter Special is easily the most forgettable episode and should have been a special feature, instead of the cold (puns!) open to the genius that follows.
Once things get rolling though the focus of the series boils down to a few major plot points:
1) Fred and Carrie being assigned to recruit citizens from Mr Mayor’s hated Seattle, but only managing to bring back “Alexandra” (played by Chloe Sevigny) who they end up taking in as a third roommate. While Alexandra’s character does little and the reasons for hiring Sevigny to play her seem unclear for most of the season, it all finally pays off in the last three episodes.
2) Ridiculously uptight Peter and Nance decide to convert their giant home into a Bed and Breakfast with varying, but hilarious results.
3) Finally, the beloved Mr Mayor is exposed to be Portland’s greatest energy hog, and as a man who believes whole-heartedly in the Green Lifestyle of his town, finds himself with no choice but to step down as Mayor, after which point he moves “Off The Grid” and leaves Portland in peril. First from a Temp Mayor (Roseanne Barr in one of her most tolerable performances) who wants to take this city of grown-up children living in a fantasy land and make it more like a “real city” with congested automobile traffic, people in khakis actually going to a job, the ever-present scent of urine, and Box Stores.
The next great threat he leaves Portland with is a part of the ultra-climactic season finale, which I won’t ruin for you. WILL THE MR MAYOR EVER RETURN AND SET THINGS RIGHT?!?!
In fact the final episode (as well as the finale for season 2) is great in that it brings everything to a head with many of Armisen and Brownstein’s characters interacting and bringing a real sense of city, community, and the near-belief that all these fictitious characters played by the same two people are actually all citizens who might interact often, or at least shop at the same Co-Ops, in this wonderfully realized version of the creators imaginary Portland(IA).
If there is any downsides to PORTLANDIA season 3, it’s they continue to rely on characters created in seasons 1 and 2, without bring much in the way of new characters to the table (though they have trimmed the fat, as it were, and reoccurring characters are used just as much they need be and are not shoved down your gob every episode, a lesson I’m sure Armisen took with from his SNL days). I’m curious now that they have essentially done a season-long movie if Brownstein and Armisen are going to grow and experiment with the next two seasons they have already signed a deal for (coming 2014 and 2015).
Another slight downside is that as PORTLANDIA has become a bigger and bigger hit more and more guest stars are brought in. Most of them work brilliantly in this season—specifically Jim Gaffigan playing a gay food truck owner, Bill Hader as ‘Birdman’, and Patton Oswalt as the King of E-Vite replies @THOR88. The crowning achievements of cameos this season though is a straight-up tie between Matt Berry as an uber-successful front man for a band that makes children’s music, and the combined cameos of Kurt Loder/Tabitha Soren/Matt Pinfield attempting a coup on MTV to bring it back to what it was in the 90s.
Other cameos (Juliette Lewis and No Doubt, for instance) are just kind of throw away one-time jokes that don’t pan out. The worst cameo offense belonging to Jack White who literally shows up at the end of one sketch on the Winter Special and says literally NOTHING! The fact Jack White has randomly appeared IS THE JOKE. Ha?
As I’ve said though, I enjoyed season 3 of PORTLANDIA quite a lot, if not for the uniqueness the show offered in the first two seasons, but because of their daring to take the viewer on a 10 episode comedic arc. You have to figure after “all the buzz” some people probably started watching PORTLANDIA with season 3 and were probably pretty lost, but for hard-core fans of the show season 3 was a delightful gift of long-form comedy I was not expecting and richly enjoyed.
The extra features are the sparsest of the seasons so far–2 deleted scene, and Kumail Nanjiani’s tour of some of the real weirder sites and inspirations in Portland for the show, which you can already watch on the IFC PORTLANDIA page.
Season 3 of PORTLANDIA is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. Seasons 1 and 2 are streaming in all the usual places and I highly suggest watching them before tackling season 3.