Portlandia’s second episode, “The Fiancée,” continues to play with the straightforward narrative approach set during last week’s Season Five opener, this time focusing on Nina (Fred Armisen) and Lance (Carrie Brownstein) and their couple trouble. Unlike “The Story of Toni and Candace,” the episode didn’t hit all the right beats, largely because of a weaker storyline, and frankly, because Nina and Lance just aren’t as compelling as Toni and Candace.
The episode opens with a commercial for Creative Jungle, a video production company, that boasts “pro-sumer event capturing… at a cost.” The playful low-tech graphics were cool, but the funniest thing about this bit was Brownstein’s hair: a super fluffy bob that would have fit perfectly in many a high school class photo from the ‘80s. These opening commercial sketches can either be standalone skits or continue through the episode, and this time, the video team re-enters the story about midway through, to play a crucial role in the plot.
Nina and Lance are in family counseling because they’ve been dating for eight years, and Nina wants more from Lance, who’s reluctant to get married. “Marriage is for p*ssies,” he says. “There’s like jewelry involved.” But with the help of their therapist, played by the endearing non-actor Henry Cottrell, who starred in several Portlandia episodes, including the brilliant Battlestar Galactica-themed “One Moore Episode” from Season Two. (This was the standout installment poked fun at binge-watching TV shows even before binging was a thing.)
Nina and Lance find the root cause of his hesitation: his mother (played by Gretchen Corbett, best known for The Rockford Files) is coming to town for a visit with a new boyfriend in tow. Lance isn’t looking forward to meeting the guy because his mom’s been married five times. When Nina and the therapist try to dig deeper into Lance’s psyche, he gets angry, which leads to the unexpectedly funny exchange in the session: “Why are you overanalyzing this!?” Lance asks. “He’s an analyst,” Nina responds. “That’s his job.” While Fred’s and Carrie’s voices have always been altered to play their character’s gender-bending roles, during this particular episode Nina’s voice seemed… different with Armisen sounding like someone on helium.
One of the high points of “The Fiancée” is guest star Justin Long as Gretchen’s boyfriend. He was a dead ringer for Lance—and Carrie—from the way he dresses, to his manly handshake, to the mustache that sat oh-so conspicuously on his upper lip. Justin wants Lance’s permission to propose, and he tells Lance not to think of him like a stepdad, but, “Think of me like more of a biological dad.” While Lance distrusts Justin at first, because of daddy abandonment issues, the two bond at an amusement park, riding roller coasters and playing arcade games. They begin acting like father-and-son by the end of their excursion, with Lance even riding piggyback on Justin. It’s sublimely ridiculous, which is always the point when Portlandia’s in best form.
The episode culminates in an elaborate proposal scheme coordinated by the Creative Jungle team. Justin agrees to a plan that revolves around his and Gretchen’s love of true-life crime dramas. The video production company sets up a rather lame, amber alert proposal caper, complete with lots of GoPros, handheld cameras and a title card that begins with a cheesy Ingrid Bergman quote: “A kiss is a lovely trick/designed by nature/to stop speech when words become superfluous….” We were, however, a little surprised by a plot-twist that coupled the amber alert scenario and police shootings, which resulted in a tender moment between Nina and Lance.
Like so many other sketch comedies, Portlandia has always been uneven with its humor. The play on big romantic gestures a was good angle to tackle (and we’re sick of the proliferation of over-produced proposals on YouTube), but Justin and Creative Jungle, like the rest of the episode, just didn’t go quite far enough.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.