The IFC comedy series Portlandia should really be subtitled “This American Hipster Life,” or something like it, because the show constantly mines inspiration from the average, everyday lives of the over-educated and underemployed. And when the sketches hit their marks, the results aren’t just comedy, but pretty good social commentary, too.
With director Jonathan Krisel and producers/writers/leads Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein returning for the show’s fourth season, the first episode, “Sharing Finances,” doesn’t stray too much from Portlandia’s modus operandi. One or two themes thread a few of the sketches together, interspersed by one-off skits and fake commercials.
The opening segment features guest star Kirsten Dunst as a woman who’s staying at her aunt’s haunted house. The ghosts, played by Armisen and Brownstein, are pretty chatty for dead folks. They spook Dunst’s character by spouting off health tidbits like “Drinking too much fruit juice can lead to diabetes” and citing sources like NPR or the June 2011 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. The other ghost then refutes the statement with his or her own studies and reports. Dunst’s character delves into the house’s previous owners and finds that the couple died from confusion—not knowing what was good for them.
While mildly entertaining, this skit felt a little derivative of the first season’s “Did You Read” segment, where friends try to one-up each other by mentioning what they’ve read in the New York Times, Dwell, etc. (Even Paste got a shout out in the earlier skit.)
The second sketch introduces the episode’s overarching storyline. Doug and Claire are out to dinner, and Claire reaches for the bill. Although Doug protests (“I’m a guy … I want to treat you.”), he doesn’t have his life together. He proceeds to add half of the bill to his running tab of what he owes Claire (a mere $12,000.27). Despite all the red flags, Claire proposes to Doug at the end of the scene. Not marriage, mind you. She’s talking real commitment here: “Douglas Daniel Stalder, will you open a joint checking account with me?”
Later in the episode, guest Vanessa Bayer from Saturday Night Live plays the bank teller who’s trying to warn Claire about merging bank accounts and the probability of running her credit score into the ground. “I don’t support it, but I’ll do it,” she says. Claire’s a little defensive and retorts, “Are you single?” With her straight-laced, low-key persona, Bayer emerges as a hilarious scene-stealer, saying aloud everything the audience is thinking.
Other highlights feature Portlandia guest regular Kumail Nanjiani as a “date fact checker,” who audits Fred’s truthiness after a first date. He calls Fred out for saying he likes Breaking Bad though he’s never watched an episode. “What it represents in television is pretty cool,” Fred responds.
Their scenes are a little more lively, and peppered with witty dialogue and surprises (even a guest cameo by Tunde Adebimpe of TV On The Radio). Fred finally admits to Kumail that in his approach to dating, he’s “kind of fake at first” and gets more honest as the relationship goes on. The scenes between the veteran comedians are even funnier because the premise strikes close to home for many of us.
The best stand-alone segment of the show is classic, wacky Portlandia, with Fred and Carrie as a couple who can only find a 15-minute parking spot in crowded downtown Portland. Despite the time constraints, they manage to squeeze the life out of those 15 minutes, checking out a museum, meeting a cousin’s baby, trying a molecular gastronomy restaurant, visiting a friend in the hospital and, with 45 seconds to kill, make a little love in the parking spot.
The episode’s duds featured an unfunny commercial for Portland Pet Haven and a sketch where Carrie discovers that the “man” she’s falling in love with is really a mainframe computer. We guess it’s the Portlandia angle on Spike Jonze’s Her, but after Jonah Hill’s great parody on Saturday Night Live recently, the sketch falls flat in comparison.
Overall, the episode was a pretty solid one, but it’ll be interesting to see how Krisel, Armisen and Brownstein keep things fresh in this fourth season. After all, it’s been awhile since we were really surprised and entertained by sketches that show us how to put birds on things, dream of the ’90s and binge-watch sci-fi classics.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on “Twitter”: https://twitter.com/christineziemba.