The Most Essential ‘Portlandia’ Sketches From Every Season
After years spent introducing us to everything from a feminist car wash to the joys of pickling, IFC’s Portlandia is about to enter its eighth and final season. Initially coming across as a sendup of Portland hipsterdom, the sketch series created by former Saturday Night Live cast member Fred Armisen and Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein evolved into a surprising and Monty Python-esque collection of interwoven character-driven arcs, committed as much as any comedy has been to the virtue of absurdity. In honor of its last run starting January 18 at 10pm, we compiled the show’s best, most quintessentially Portlandia moments to date.
“Spyke's Bike Lane” (Season 1, Episode 2)
Long before bike lanes and bike-sharing became a commonplace urban concept, Portland was way ahead of the curve. One of Armisen’s most indelible creations on Portlandia, the pugnacious-yet-oblivious Spyke, embodies Cycling Righteousness. Equipped with a small-billed cycling hat and a shrill whistle on a chain, he patrols the streets, calling out to everyone, regardless of whether they are in his path. He alternates bike messages -- “Bicycle rights!” or “If you’re gonna turn, you gotta tell me!”-- with observations like “Whole Foods is corporate!” Clocking in at just 80 seconds, the sketch is a triumph of economical character exposition.
“Did You Read It?” (Season 1, Episode 4)
This early sketch displays the show’s uncanny facility for skewering the intellectual pretensions of the smart set. Playing versions of themselves, Fred and Carrie sit across from each other at the James John Café in North Portland. (The location title cards at the start of each sketch heighten the absurdity by inviting viewers to imagine the scenes playing out in real places.) An innocuous exchange about recent articles in the New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and Dwell escalates into a fusillade of tit-for-tat bragging and interrogation. “Did you read that steampunk article in Boing Boing?” Brownstein demands. “I did not like the end of it,” Armisen chides. Their reading challenges become increasingly ludicrous while lightning-fast editing reaches strobe-light intensity. In this desperate pair, viewers recognize their own futile attempts to stay current in today’s relentless news cycle.
“Deuce Hotel” (Season 1, Episode 5)
It takes only a couple of seconds for the absurdist tone of this takeoff of the ultra-hip Ace Hotel chain to fully register. Checking guests into the hotel, Armisen’s front-desk clerk hands them turntables and records, while a lobby DJ nearby spins messages about continental breakfast on the ones and twos. Liftoff is achieved when members of the fictional band Echo Echo (played by The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, The Shins’ James Mercer, and Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker) make Armisen and Brownstein star-struck -- and make them question their service to "The Man."
“Shooting Star Preschool” (Season 2, Episode 5)
Armisen and Brownstein are preschool parents at a PTA meeting, but forget nut allergies or bullying -- what sets them off is the “horrible” and “toxic” classroom music collection lying within easy reach of their child. Exhibit A, Brownstein argues: an album by mid-’80s pop group Mike & the Mechanics, which she labels a “gateway to other mediocre pop music.” A quarrel erupts among parents as Whitney Houston, the Sex Pistols, and musicianship vs. pure punk-rock fury are all debated. By the time a well-meaning man stops by with his bin of records to donate to the classroom, being able to predict how the feisty mob is going to respond takes away none of the comedic pleasure of the moment.
“She’s Making Jewelry Now” (Season 2, Episode 6)
While many sketches throughout Portlandia’s run have had musical themes or cameos by musicians (credit the musical backgrounds of both its stars), this is one of a select number of fully-produced music parodies. “I like your necklace, that’s really cool,” Fred says -- which sets off Carrie’s lyrical explanation of her sister's recently-discovered passion. The song is patently silly -- “She’s making jewelry now / she’s got her own website” -- and stays locked in variations of that main couplet. Absurd, persuasively acted, hummable -- vintage Portlandia.
“Spoiler Alert” (Season 3, Episode 2)
By the third season, Portlandia was known for tapping into the Zeitgeist in its own unique way. The show’s obsession with pop culture often pays dividends, as in this widely shared sketch, which presents a conversation very close to one we’ve all had more than once. At a dinner party, two couples gingerly explore the topic of what TV series they are watching and, more importantly, how far they have progressed in each. A razor-sharp riff on time-shifting and the burden we all carry with a full DVR and abundant risk of having plots ruined for us, this sketch hits on all the big names. From Game of Thrones to Breaking Bad to The Wire, each poses a dilemma: how to discuss them without spoilers?
“Fart Patio” (Season 3, Episode 4)
Vegan cuisine goes under the microscope, with hilarious results, in this imagined scene in the very real Portland restaurant Prasad. A middle-aged couple have their first vegan dining experience and the comedy comes not in the food, all of which is gobbled up within seconds, but rather in the symphony of fart noises that starts percolating on the soundtrack. Fortunately for the couple, they are not the only gassy customers. In just two minutes, the sketch manages to comment on a rising foodie trend through the well-worn divide between smokers and non.
“Date Fact-Checker” (Season 4, Episode 1)
Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani had several memorable turns on Portlandia, including here, as a fact-checker monitoring Fred’s date. In an inspired nod to the casual embellishments of early romance (and the rising role of fact-checking in politics and media), Nanjiani launches an interrogation-style mission. While Fred declared his favorite TV show is Breaking Bad, the fact-checker pounces, noting it actually ranks below HBO’s vampire melodrama True Blood in Fred’s DVR queue. The sketch’s point of view (that the world would be improved by more honesty on dates) is only sharpened by the relevance of the topic, aired years before the onslaught of “fake news.”
“Microhouse” (Season 5, Episode 8)
As with the best Portlandia sketches, the target of this satire is pretty close to the satire itself. Taking a cue from shows like HGTV’s Tiny House, Big Living, the scene is an upbeat tour through a couple’s miniscule living space, which they have turned into a marvel of efficiency. Showing the viewer around, Armisen’s character reveals the “library” -- a tiny, cluttered closet. “How’s that book?” he asks his spouse, played by Brownstein. “It’s great,” she says brightly, before turning wistful. “I just... wanted a little alone time.”
“Old Spinster” (Season 6, Episode 2)
One of the most pointed sketches ever to air on the show, “Old Spinster” follows Carrie to her gynecologist, played by Arrested Development creator Mitchell Hurwitz. After she says she is in the “early stages” of considering having a baby, he consults his chart and finds that she is just “a couple years away from becoming an old spinster.” It only gets more riotously ribald from there, as Hurwitz tosses off tasteless quips about Carrie’s anatomy. Little of the dialogue is safely quotable here, but all of it speaks effectively to deep truths about gender.
“Peter & Nance Protein Diet” (Season 7, Episode 4)
Buttoned-down duo Peter and Nance, who never met a chance they wanted to take, are one of the most consistently pleasurable creations on Portlandia. Having heard about the wonders of diets rich in protein, the pair decide to give one a try, and the outcome will make the pro-paleo crowd howl. Using a range of impressive makeup and wardrobe tricks, the illusion is created of radical, instant weight loss, with all of the brittle bones, sallow cheeks, and paper-thin skin to go with it.
“Friend Convention” (Season 7, Episode 6)
The winning premise here is the relatable concept of “bumping up” one’s acquaintances to full “friend” status when friends drift away to marriages or new jobs. At an “acquaintance convention” (“turn that friend of a friend... into a friend!”), Carrie connects with a shifty scenester named Brendan (played by Armisen). Like many Portlandia riffs over the years, it sends up the city’s population of strivers, people looking to score points with appearances. But it hits an especially high note by grounding itself in the notion of actual, physical friendship in a world increasingly defined by virtual connections.