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A-O River: ‘Portlandia’ returns for sixth season

(Portlandia Official Facebook Page)

(Portlandia Official Facebook Page)

Prepare your punk barbecues and stock up on celery because “Portlandia” is back. The sketch comedy brainchild of Jonathan Krisel, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein returns to IFC for its sixth season on Thursday, January 21 at 10 p.m.

Since its beginning in 2011, the show has been highly praised and nominated for awards in writing, costume design, directing and more. “Portlandia” earned a Peabody Award in 2012 and most recently won a 2015 Emmy for Outstanding Production Design for Variety, Nonfiction, Reality or Reality-Competition Programming.

“Portlandia” is composed of short comedy vignettes starring Armisen and Brownstein, who portray a wide range of characters, including themselves. Their sketches playfully satirize the alternative lifestyles of the many disparate people who coexist in the indie-mecca of Portland, Oregon.

Armisen and Brownstein create and embody characters, frequently couples, with stereotypical Portland identities that have been over-exaggerated to the point of ridiculous hilarity. “Portlandia” does not shy away from the bizarre or the absurd, but embraces both and revels in a cerebral type of comedy. At times, it’s more likely to evoke a questioning smile than a belly laugh, although it is capable of prompting both.

Whether they are being over-protective parents, neon-clad ecoterrorists, or gender swapping yet gender role-driven fiancées, Armisen and Brownstein fully adopt and commit to the identity of their characters. If the “Portlandia” couples have anything in common, it’s that they take themselves – and each other – very seriously.

This might seem counterintuitive for comedy, but the seriousness of the characters about their beliefs and identities is what enables them to be satirized, and turns this comedy into universal commentary – a reminder that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. When Candace and Toni (the male-hating proprietors of a feminist bookstore) insist that finger pointing is phallic, or Nance and Peter (the hyper-dependent, milquetoast married couple) kiss each other repeatedly with “mwah” noises in a PG-rated PDA, we are made to laugh at the quirky, random differences between their identities and in doing so, recall our own.`

At the heart of these differing character pairs is the real life friendship of Armisen and Brownstein. The popularization of comedy duos – such as the “Portlandia” co-stars, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler or Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer – has its roots in the sense of companionship that pervades the comedy and makes the audience believe in the creative strength of this mutual affection.

When watching Armisen and Brownstein become any of their characters on “Portlandia,” the viewer gets the sense that the actors are performing for each other just as much as they are for a broader audience.

In anticipation of the show’s return, IFC created a series of promotional videos interviewing Armisen and Brownstein about season six. So, what can viewers expect from the series this season? Armisen notes their use of more long-form, plot-based episodes, which departs from their original style of distinctly separate sketches.

Now that they have a relatively large arsenal of characters from which to draw, the storylines between these characters can become increasingly interconnected and the show as a whole more plot-driven. This is an interesting development, considering much of the dialogue in early episodes of “Portlandia” was improvised, according to an interview with Armisen and Brownstein featured in Variety last June.

If you are already a fervent lover of “Portlandia” and are looking for even more Carrie and Fred in your life, you should check out Brownstein’s new memoir “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl” and Armisen’s “Documentary Now!,” another IFC series which parodies famous documentary films with the comedic aid of Bill Hader and Seth Meyers. In the meantime, get excited to delve back into the world of “Portlandia” and back into the “cacao”-phony of character voices that creates the comedic heightened reality of Armisen and Brownstein’s Portland.

Chloe Heidepriem can be reached at cheidepriem@umass.edu.

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