A bargain-hunting couple find a free parking spot in downtown Portland. Then they cram a full day's activities into the 15 minutes it provides. ...
After his successful first date, a Portland man gets a visit from a Date Fact Checker, who grills him on the truth of what he told his new girlfriend (he's busted for having said his favorite show is "Breaking Bad" when evidence proves he has never seen it). ...
Portland's feminist bookstore tries to bail itself out of debt with a politically correct carwash. ... And so it goes on "Portlandia," whose crystalline absurdity and truth is back for its fourth season on IFC on Thursday at 10 p.m. EST.
The Peabody award-winning show, too fine-tuned to be dubbed sketch comedy, teems instead with indie-cinema-ish interludes. Its vignettes, larger than life yet lifelike, feel vividly indigenous to Portland, Ore., yet, at the same time, resonate with universal relevance.
It's the product of a remarkable collaboration: Carrie Brownstein (musician, comedian, actress and, by the way, a Portland resident) in saucy cahoots with Fred Armisen (former drummer for the punk-rock group Trenchmouth, a "Saturday Night Live" alum and, as his brand-new gig, bandleader for "Late Night With Seth Meyers," premiering Monday on NBC).
Added to the ferment, of course, is Portland, the show's home base and creative fountainhead. "I love Portland. I love Carrie," says Armisen, explaining the genesis of "Portlandia" over poached eggs at a Greenwich Village boutique hotel. "I called her: 'What are you up to? Let's come up with some stuff.' I fly out there. And then we did."
What began as just-for-us videos by Armisen and Brownstein evolved into a weekly cable-TV venture once "SNL" producer Lorne Michaels got onboard. With that, Portland was reintroduced to the world through the lens of "Portlandia."
"It's more a mind-set than a place," muses Brownstein by phone from Portland. "It's an exemplary city in how befuddled it can sometimes be by its own attempts at progressiveness and kindness. Here, your biggest battle is whether something is local versus organic. Or whether your coffee shop provides you with whole milk or half-and-half.
"We try to explore how absurd these kinds of choices can be, and try to ascertain the meaning underneath these silly struggles. Portland is a great microcosm of all this." Portrayed as well-meaning, forward-thinking but self-deluded, a place typically intent on doing the "right" thing even when it makes no sense, Portland lays bare great comic possibilities. But the show's writers aren't looking for easy gags.
As a humorist, Armisen says he works backward from the real-life curiosities he runs across: He questions what, and who, might account for them. "There's a new artisan sandwich I'm seeing everywhere," he cites as an example. "How did that happen? You wonder who the person is that buys it, but also who it's marketed by. And it goes from there. You don't so much start the comic process with a smile as with a question mark."
Brownstein weighs in: "Fred is less fascinated by the phenomenon and more fascinated by the motivating factors, the character traits of some of the stranger, obsessive people who are putting out more chaos than solutions."
She and Armisen play many of those characters on any given episode, but "it's not like we really transform into other people," Armisen insists with an excess of humility. "They're just aspects of us."
Meanwhile, the pair are supported by players ranging from Portland locals to a grab bag of celebrities who, this season, include Kirsten Dunst, k.d. lang, Steve Buscemi, Guns N' Roses' Duff McKagan, director Gus Van Sant and a number of past and present "SNL" regulars.
"They come in and have a good time with us," says Armisen, explaining how the show attracts big stars for what are often little more than cameos: "They get to come for the day to a nice city not far from L.A., and we let them be whatever they want to be. And then they have a little dinner. It's pretty cool."
For the "Portlandia" production team, each season's cycle entails a six-week stretch writing its 10 episodes, followed by three busy months in front of the cameras. "But there seems to be more and more things we can examine," says Armisen as he looks ahead to prepping season five.
The mission is examination, not declaring a verdict: "Saying something's right or wrong isn't up to you as a comedian. Being present and funny, that's your only job. The only message is, 'I don't know! That's just how people are!'"
"We aren't interested in exploring the obvious surface targets," echoes Brownstein. "Instead of the target, we'd rather be the arrow, charting the trajectory and figuring out what the journey is like."
Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier