“Lance is Smart,” Portlandia’s penultimate episode this season, starts as a critique of intellectual elitism (rampant at dinner parties and art movie houses everywhere) and evolves into a surprisingly sweet romantic comedy. Co-creator Jonathan Krisel returns to direct for only the fourth time this season, and brings restraint and subtlety to an innocent “like” triangle between Lance (Carrie Brownstein), Nina (Fred Armisen) and Matthew (Matthew Schur)—Nina’s 12-year-old tutor. It’s a completely different pacing and style from last week’s zany “Femimart” escapades, adding another dimension to the show’s oeuvre.
This week, Portlandia eschews the sketch format for a straightforward narrative, opening with Lance in a minor motorcycle accident. A concerned Nina takes him to a wise-cracking eye doctor (Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz, who played Carrie’s OBGYN in the episodes “Going Gray” and “Shville”) to test his vision. Lance easily reads the “E” on the top line, but fails further down the line, calling an “F” a hangman and the “C” a nose ring. Lance resists getting glasses, until a fellow customer Jarvis (Saturday Night Live’s Robert Smigel) comments that he looks like a young Marcello Mastroianni. Lance explains to Nina that Fellini cast Mastroianni in several of his films like 8 1/2, but it goes over her head. Jarvis convinces Lance to get glasses because he “can still be a biker on the inside.” The two become fast bros, and head out to catch a matinee screening of Battleship Potemkin and discuss the photography of William Eggleston.
When Nina and Lance get invited to Jarvis’ house for a dinner party, Nina is completely out of place. The guests chat about the waitlist for new Tesla batteries, while Nina talks about a fight she had in school in which she and the other girls threw batteries—or magic markers—at each other. Needless to say, Lance is embarrassed by her lack of booksmarts and social graces. Once they get home, he criticizes her for telling stories without beginnings or ends—just middles.
Nina befriends Matthew, a sixth grader who’s on the debate and chess teams, at a local park. She asks him to tutor her so she can pass the GED exam and not embarrass Lance in front of his new smart friends. Schur is endearing: As Nina’s foil, he shows the utmost patience when Nina can’t quite grasp facts like who won the American Revolution. Matthew and his mom suggest that Nina have a dinner party for Lance and his friends to show how far she’s come. Matthew helps prep the party and leaves Nina with a parting gift: An unabridged dictionary.
The cocktail hour goes well, with Nina being as bougie as the rest of them. But during dinner, Jarvis and Lance start dropping $10 words like “oeuvre,” “verdant,” “abstruse” and “solipsistic.” In a hilarious scene, Nina heads to the kitchen time and time again to look up the words between courses. Jarvis patronizingly tells Nina that it’s OK if she doesn’t know what “solipsistic” means, but it’s the last straw. She runs off to Matthew’s house to unload her problems, and Matthew asks Nina to his sixth grade sock hop. (Yes, it’s a little creepy with just the two of them hanging out in his bedroom at night, but it’s all on the up-and-up.)
As Nina gets ready for the dance, Lance asks to talk about the dinner party. She tells him they’ll talk later. “I have to look at some of the buildings,” she says. Lance replies, “That doesn’t make any sense.” (It’s a funny throwaway exchange, but delivered perfectly by Brownstein and Armisen.). Lance thinks Nina’s having an affair, and becomes upset when he sees Matthew and Nina sock hopping away. Lance and Matthew tussle over Nina, and Matthew gets the upper hand in the battle. Lance leaves, but Matthew gets a little too frisky with Nina’s derriere during a slow dance. She goes home to study for her GED, where Lance finds her asleep over her books at the kitchen table.
We won’t spoil the end here, but it’s satisfying, heart-warming and decidedly old-fashioned. “Lance is Smart” is one of our favorite Lance and Nina episodes—both Brownstein and Armisen seem to embody, rather than play, these characters. Armisen tones down Nina’s whininess and annoying traits to gain the audience’s sympathy. And it worked: We really do feel for her, because who among us hasn’t been a victim of the intellectual elite?
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.