Fred Armisen (of “Saturday Night Live” and now “Late Night With Seth Meyers” bandleader fame) and Carrie Brownstein (of the band Sleater-Kinney) tonight return for a fourth season of the fondly skewer-some “Portlandia,” a show about people, culture, ’90s nostalgia and basically everything else, too. Maybe you saw an episode or two and thought it wasn’t for you in seasons past, but hear me out: now is the time to tune in.
You know that feeling you get when you’re watching “SNL,” and you know exactly what’s being satirized? That’s basically what “Portlandia” is about, but for a cultural niche that doesn’t tend to end up on television. It’s less pointedly direct than benignly suggestive, and it follows a loose narrative thread, which makes it a little more endearing to watch and more rewarding to following chronologically than Armisen’s alma mater. The premise is simple: Fred and Carrie (and their various personas) satirize peoples and trends while traipsing through the most ordinary and familiar-looking places in Portland. While the skits poke fun at a very specific kind of thing, the jokes aren’t specific to Oregon. Or maybe they are, but in a spiritual sense — that “Portland” that exists everywhere there are artisanal snacks, hipster weddings, an awareness of allergies that verges on bragging and helicopter parenting.
“Portlandia” isn’t just “SNL” with more props and a resourceful location. Coming into its fourth year, the show is trying something new. The satire is still there, but the skits are a little longer, providing a chance to dive deep into the characters themselves on an episode-by-episode basis.
Nina and Lance, Fred and Carrie, and some of our other favorite pairs are still here (including a few new duos), but there’s a bit of extra time and attention devoted to emotional accuracy, relevant relationship dynamics, and a sort of stressed, relatable melancholy that provides grounding and pushes past smart humor without losing it.
In other words, if you like “Girls,” “Community,” “Parks and Rec” or “Workaholics,” you might like “Portlandia” — especially season four.
That’s not to say that the show is shunning its preceding seasons whatsoever. The first three seasons have been great, slowly progressing from simple skits to recurring jokes to subtle culture commentary to straight up hilarity. While you don’t need to watch the episodes leading up to this new season to get a good laugh, it obviously builds on them a bit, and you’ll probably feel rewarded if you do. Here’s a base-coat fact that will allow you to begin watching post-haste: you can start anywhere. Seriously, pick a episode in the last three seasons (we all have our favorites) and go.
And a shout out to the hipsters: you’ll be rewarded for your taste. Some cameos occur so inconspicuously that unless you know which semi-celebrity is before you, you’ll probably miss it. There’s some gimmes (including but not limited to Andy Samberg and Kirsten Dunst), but there’s some some real indie gems that just pass through “Portlandia” — though none of them settle down.
You will see St. Vincent, the Dirty Projectors, Jack White and members of Carrie Brownstein’s great-but-short-lived band Wild Flag. You’ll see the real mayor of Portland at the time of filming, Jeff Goldblum at least once per season (and an early episode of season four hilariously pits him against one of our favorite Brownstein characters), as well as Jack McBrayer when he forgets to bring his own bag to the green grocery store.
Somewhere between the unfailing presence of Armisen and Brownstein and the plethora of cameos, there’s a supporting cast spread neatly and thinly across the show since episode one. Members are always playing someone different, and they pop up every once in a while just to install the Jacuzzi or attend Nina’s birthday party. Some of them come on strong in season four, including Steve Buscemi, Kumail Nanjiani and “the quiet guy” Josh Frank. Unfailingly, they are there to make the series mesh, one familiar social complexity after another. Portlandia is keen enough to keep you laughing even as it simultaneously mocks the liturgies of brunching and the conversational patterns of those who do it.