“Six Feet Under” holds a special place in Carrie Brownstein’s heart as the first show she ever binged. Of course, this was years before streaming, and she didn’t even have HBO at the time, so the “Portlandia” co-creator and star did it the old-fashioned way: She rented the series on video.
“Six Feet Under” was one of the shows that ushered in the new golden age of TV. For Brownstein, it also produced one of her favorite episodes of TV of all time, the Season 4 episode “That’s My Dog.”
“This episode, in particular what I like about it is that it took huge risks with its audience,” Brownstein said. “As someone who makes television taking that kind of risk, I see it now as a precedent that other people have done. They take the audience expectation and they subvert it. I don’t think in this case it was manipulative. It was trying to get to something flawed and contradictory about the character and expose the vulnerabilities and also the dark underpinnings, the urges, the abject urges we all have. Taking a character that people love and messing with them is something that is hard to do. I thought it was a really intense episode.”
IndieWire recently sat down with Brownstein to discuss the legacy of Portlandia, and whether she and Fred Armisen might ever be interested in revisiting the show. We also talked about the state of her Hulu pilot, “Search and Destroy,” and what she has in store next. But first, we dug into that “Six Feet Under” episode and how it was one of the shows she at first missed out on while touring with her band Sleater-Kinney. Listen below!
“Six Feet Under” was a critical hit from the moment the drama premiered on HBO in 2001. Created by Alan Ball, the show followed the lives of the Fisher family, as played by Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, Lauren Ambrose and Frances Conroy. The twist, of course, was that the family ran a Los Angeles funeral home, Fisher & Sons, and each episode began with a death.
“That’s My Dog,” the fifth episode of Season 4 (airing in 2004), is a bit of a departure for the show, and was polarizing at the time among fans. In the episode, David (played by Hall) takes in a hitchhiker, who proceeds to traumatize him. Ball wrote the episode with Scott Buck, while Alan Poul directed. “I felt pretty shaken up myself,” critic Emily Nussbaum wrote at the time for New York Magazine. “And I wasn’t the only one: Like other controversial episodes, such as Dr. Melfi’s rape on The Sopranos, ‘That’s My Dog’ became an instant cocktail controversy, sparking debate for weeks.”
Said Brownstein: “You take the most humanist, relatable character, the moral center of the show, David Fisher, and thrust him into a really terrifying, violent scenario where he is tricked and attacked and beaten. It’s horrific. It’s a brutal episode, and I think people were all over the place with their reactions to it. Some people thought it was brave, other people thought it was gratuitous.”
Meanwhile, Brownstein also cited “The Office” Season 2 episode “The Injury” as another favorite. “It’s one of the most absurd, torturous half hours of television I’ve seen ever,” she said. “It’s so funny, it’s so dark. The exploration of compassion and empathy.”
As for “Portlandia,” which returned for an eighth and final season this past winter, fans recently had to say farewell to the eclectic Portland-based characters played by Armisen and Brownstein. The show exits with several more Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Variety Sketch Series and Outstanding Directing for a Variety Series, which Brownstein is nominated for as the helmer behind the episode “Riot Spray.”
But asked to pick her favorite episode of the series, Brownstein chose the Season 5 premiere, “The Story of Toni & Candace.” The episode was unusual for “Portlandia” in that it spent the entire half hour on one narrative: how Toni and Candace went from being rivals at B. Dalton and Waldenbooks corporate to leaving New York and opening the Women and Women First bookstore in Portland.
“Toni and Candace had always been favorites of ours,” Brownstein said. “They’re so strange, they operate from a place of outrage and contradiction. We thought, ‘Why? Why are these women who are running a feminist bookstore, which one would think would espouse solidarity and openness, and inclusivity, why are they pushing people away?'”
In coming up with their origin story, Armisen and Brownstein first put Toni and Candace as the secret founders of the riot grrl punk movement. But that seemed too easy. “We thought, let’s put them in a place that’s inherently more conflict.”
The highlight: a dance-off to Snap’s “The Power.” “Why did we not choreograph that dance? That was improv dancing,” she said. “That was a very fun day, dancing to that song. We spent a lot of money on that song.”
As for the obvious question of whether they’ll ever revisit “Portlandia,” Brownstein said she’s torn. “I’m sure we’ll do something. But I don’t know, I feel like we ended in a way where we really still enjoyed it. It never felt obligatory. It always felt hopeful and relatable and relevant. I think we would only return to it if there was something to say and we felt like the container of ‘Portlandia’ was the only shape to tell a certain story. Fred and I and Jonathan Krisel, we’re all allergic to anything that feels indulgent or self-referential. I love getting in and getting out. And I would say eight seasons is barely that. That’s like a long stretch of time. I feel so lucky to have done it for that long. We’ll see. I’d say never say never, but who knows.”
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