The dream of the ‘90s is a Portland export, and it’s spreading into every urban warehouse turned microbrewery and artisanal soap shop across the nation. A city like Portland is a haven for idealists, nurturers of individualism. Keeping the city weird are Knot Makers, Dumpster Divers, Battlestar Galactica Fans, Unemployed Millennials, People Who Put Birds On Things, and Feminist Bookstore Owners. These people make up communities we can cherish and laugh at all the same, which is why IFC’s Portlandia has built television’s unmistakable cultural bubble.
“I think that the way people relate to the show is being able to laugh at themselves and be like, “Oh yeah, that is—“ You know, there is a silliness to these false utopias. And Portland is a silly place,” co-creator and star Carrie Brownstein told Good.
The offbeat sketch show from Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video and creators Brownstein, Fred Armisen, and Jonathan Krisel, started off as a collection of sketches tackling the nuances and oddities of the outlandish creatures of the Rose city. Portlandia has grown mightily over six seasons, developing new friends and playing with its sketch structure, giving us a better sense of community in more serialized episodes like “Brunch Village” and “Blackout.” In the spirit of weirdness, and with season seven set to premiere on January 5th, we payed a visit to PDX to relive Portlandia’s most ambitious episodes.
Feminist Bookstore’s 10th Anniversary (Season 2 Episode 8)
For many, Toni and Candace are two of the most beloved characters in all of Portlandia, and, appropriately enough, “Feminist Bookstore’s 10th Anniversary” does feature plenty of them. It also features a running plot involving the bizarre tropical fruit, the durian. This durian slowly becomes a wormhole that pulls in your interest as both you and the characters attempt to unlock its mysteries. By the end of the episode, they reach the absurd conclusion that the durian is actually an alien entity that returns to its home planet.
Taking place early on in Portlandia‘s run in its second season, this is certainly the earliest example of the show embracing absurdity. It acts as a good example of what the show’s capable of doing when it gets so silly. And plus, this one’s got Penny Marshall chilling in the feminist bookstore so how can you go wrong?
Brunch Village (Season 2 Episode 10)
“Brunch Village” acts as Portlandia‘s second season finale and is also a standalone special in its own right. For a long time, I thought that it was the strongest thing that the series has turned out.
The show has arguably experimented a ton with structure over its seven years, but in season two “Brunch Village” took the idea of coalescing all the story ideas together into one location. The creation is Portland’s newest, hottest brunch destination and the Mayor has invited Fred and Carrie to eat with him. Most of the episode gloriously takes place within the sprawling line for Brunch Village while everyone awaits to get seating. It’s a clever idea that offers up plenty of ammunition on topics like minutiae and social niceties. Does anyone end up ordering pancakes? I’m not spoiling that for you!
Take Back MTV (Season 3 Episode 2)
If anyone can make this generation stand on its feet and dance for what they believe in, it’s Bot Dylan. After three seasons of the status quo in Portland, “Take Back MTV” is a revolt episode that questions if the dream of the ‘90s really is still alive.
It’s a fun question to ask for the de facto season premiere (the “Winter in Portland” special aired three weeks earlier) as they tackle a ‘90s music video anthem that’s “changing the world one party at a time” and Spike’s shock that MTV went from cultural touchstone to Teen Mom central. Even the fake commercials tie to the theme of the episode, with the Portland Milk Advisory Board recommending Zucchini Milk over Cow’s Milk.
How about reuniting MTV News hosts Kurt Loder, Tabitha Soren, and Matt Pinfield for keeping things weird? The episode ends with an unforgettable showdown at MTV, which is exactly what you imagine their programming directors to be.
Blackout (Season 3 Episode 10)
A few key storylines of Portlandia’s third season all flowed into a dramatic season finale that almost feels like an homage to LOST with several groups of characters often boxed into separate sketches forming one narrative about solving the Portland blackout. Fred and Carrie are trying to mend their fractured relationship via text, Peter and Nancy’s B&B has a “Panic Parlor,” Bill Hader shows up to forever change how we pronounce “Birdman” in an Aussie accent, and Toni and Candace ordane Kumail Nanjiani as a manager to turn the city’s power back on.
In a satisfying conclusion to a complicated year of turmoil in the Mayor’s Office, Kyle Maclachlan completes the Mayor’s best storyline of the series, a redemption story that restores glory to the Rose city. “Blackout” showed that Portlandia could step out of its sketch comfort zone and string together season-long narratives. This episode certainly opened the door for more experimentation with form in the following seasons.
Celery (Season 4 Episode 3)
“Celery” is a great episode of Portlandia, but it just as easily could have been a short film winner at Sundance. This entry is a grueling tone poem that sees a spokesperson for celery (Steve Buscemi, in one of the best performances of his career) desperately trying to give his vegetable the much needed shot in the arm necessary for the lagging product. What follows is Steve Buscemi’s character’s life getting eviscerated as he continues selling the beaten down schlub routine. Yes, Carrie and Fred do eventually rear their heads in this one, but the installment is certainly all about Buscemi (who’s an occasional director for the series, too) and a reminder of the strong tangents and tertiary characters that this show can indulge in.
The Story of Toni and Candace (Season 5 Episode 1)
It took five seasons to get a proper backstory for Toni and Candace, and by God did they deliver with an episode focused on two characters and a single storyline. What starts out as a routine blurb for the local paper descends into the hard and fast times of 1991 New York City where Candace was a big shot publishing executive with sparks in her eyes and lava in her veins while Toni was across town making her name, and getting her butt spanked, for a rival company.
When their companies merge, it sets off a rat race up the corporate ladder between the future bookstore owners, and with it comes Portlandia’s most cinematic, outrageous, and possibly most quotable episode. “I was a bit of a wiz kid… Toni the Pony, they called me.” “And I was a wiz woman. When I went to the bathroom it was loud.”
Noodle Monster (Season 6 Episode 10)
“Noodle Monster” begins innocuously enough with a simple takedown on the growing trend of traditional ramen joints and the intense order of ritual that can accompany places like this. Before you know it, the episode is transforming into a full-on Kaiju parody with a giant noodle monster attacking Portland as if it were Godzilla.
Jonathan Krisel, co-creator and primary director, absolutely kills it with the work on the ramen monster and its destruction of the city. Plus, it’s beyond fun to watch the Mayor of Portland along with Fred and Carrie trying to save the city that houses all of their many characters. In a lot of ways it’s a beautiful summation of what the show is all about and would have stood as a strong finale if the show weren’t returning. How do you top this though?