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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Portlandia: “The Fiancée”

Justin Long (left), Carrie Brownstein (IFC)
Justin Long (left), Carrie Brownstein (IFC)
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Having watched Portlandia for its entire run, one of the most surprising changes of heart I’ve had over the years has been my relationship to Nina and Lance. The only central couple where Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein swap the boyfriend and girlfriend roles around, the pair are at first glance not particularly endearing, a twist on the needy girlfriend and distant boyfriend remarkable only because of the gender swap. At the time of “Nina’s Birthday” I even called them my least favorite couple in Portlandia, criticizing Armisen’s voice as grating and Brownstein’s as more than a little unsettling.

Yet over the course of five seasons, Portlandia has pulled a remarkable trick: It’s made them the couple in whom the show produces the highest level of romantic sweetness. While couples like Dave and Kath or Peter and Nance are in symbotic/co-dependent marriages, and Fred and Carrie are an asexual Bert and Ernie friendship, Nina and Lance are the ones who spend a lot of time trying to make their relationship work. From early sketches like “Cacao!” to last season’s delightful “Pull-Out King,” Armisen and Brownstein feel comfortable challenging this pairing of opposites and have managed to develop the relationship at every turn. As such, the two are easy candidates for Portlandia’s episodic experiments, and “The Fiancée” builds on the success of “The Story Of Toni And Candace” expertly.

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As is customary with the Nina/Lance relationship, their divergent worldviews are causing friction. Nina thinks they should start talking about marriage, while Lance couldn’t be more adverse to the possibility. (“Marriage is for pussies. There’s like, jewelry involved.”) Couples counseling sessions between the two serve as the framing device for the episode, producing excellent character and comedic moments. Pushing Lance into this setting has him losing his cool with regularity, ranting about ideas of commitment and eventually lashing out at Nina for her desire of spectacle over substance, an idea previously explored in “Nina’s Birthday.” Paired with this energy is the utterly unflappable figure of the therapist, smoothly guiding them to discuss the various elephants in the room and—in a terrific visual—going so far as to loan Lance his mustache to make Nina more comfortable.

A large part of Lance’s frustrations come from his mom Gretchen’s latest visit to Portland, and the introduction of her new—yet oddly familiar—boyfriend Justin. Brownstein said in a Vanity Fair interview that fans have been commenting on the similarities between Justin Long and Lance almost as long as the show’s been on, and for his first guest appearance Portlandia embraces that to a hilariously distressing degree. If it’s odd seeing Brownstein in drag, it’s even odder seeing someone impersonating Brownstein in drag, and full credit to Long for his commitment to the part. Same mustache, same taste in Western shirts, same gravely voice, and same outlook on life—he greets his girlfriend’s son with a whip-crack manly handshake and the nickname Kemosabe.

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Yet for all its oddness, there’s still something buried at the narrative’s core, particularly once Justin expresses his interest in marrying Gretchen: “Don’t think of me as a stepdad, think of me more as a biological dad.” As ridiculous as the scene of the two spending time together is—and it is so very ridiculous as they go through stereotypical father-son interactions at a carnival, more realistic fathers and sons framed in the background—there’s an odd sweetness to it. The relationship between grown children and potential step-parents is frequently a tense one, and the level of absurdity that comes from putting Justin and Lance in that position is a perfect extrapolation of how difficult the adjustment period can be. Somehow it manages to make even a scene as surreal as Justin teaching Lance how to shave oddly touching, and make it perfectly reasonable he’d bless the engagement.

And to make that engagement perfect, Justin decides to trust the “experts.” The opening of “The Fiancée” gives the mistaken impression that it’s going to be a more sketch-centric episode with a commercial for the Creative Jungle Digital Playground, one of Portlandia’s typical small businesses where enthusiasm trumps natural ability. Justin approaches them for their expertise in planning an engagement video, and they’re ripe with awful ideas, ranging from having all his relatives dressed as Dracula to setting up a fake Amber Alert to get her attention. (“See, these are ideas that would I never have,” he says unironically.) It’s a good injection of Portlandia’s typical absurdity into the narrative, and a sign that the new episodes don’t have to entirely abandon the sketch format.

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Illustration for article titled iPortlandia/i: “The Fiancée”

That energy translates into the making of the video itself, where Justin decides to go for the Amber Alert option to replicate the cop dramas he and Lance’s mom enjoy. Here director Jonathan Krisel gets to mix things up by adding the handheld camera angles of the CJDP, everything zooming around as they attempt to capture every last nuance of emotion and then eventually panic and grab Gretchen’s phone when she wants to call the actual police. (“All those crime shows we love, why don’t we solve one?” “Because that’s dumb.”) It’s a disorienting affair, a nice riff on how many of the efforts to make events special wind up complicating the simple joy of the event itself.

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But Portlandia proves its sneaky emotional bona fides by creating a perfectly joyful moment, as Lance turns the event into a Russian doll proposal: adding a second layer of storytelling to Justin’s proposal by taking a bullet in the middle of it, and Nina uncovering a velvet box where the wound should be. It’s a moment presented without irony, surprisingly emotional as these two characters continue the journey that’s played out over four-plus seasons worth of safe words, sofa beds, and No Doubt in a hot air balloon. “The Fiancée” gives Portlandia its second win with the new format in as many episodes, and builds hope that by the end of the season we’ll get to see the most interesting (if not the coolest) wedding the show can devise.

Stray observations:

  • This Week In Portland: Lots of recognizable landmarks this week. The opening scene of Justin’s proposal scheme is set outside Union Station, his first meeting with Nina and Lance is in the Double Tree Hotel, the double date takes place at the Chinese Gardens, and the bonding scene and chase scene take place at Oaks Amusement Park.
  • Someone needs to put together a GIF of Lance and Justin endlessly going down that roller coaster with their arms up and faces devoid of any levity.
  • Wonderful piece of visual humor as Nina continues to ramble about she feels this giant thing looming over her, and then bats an engagement ring balloon away without even batting an eye.
  • Nina doesn’t understand Lance’s reticence to propose. “What’s he scared of, what am I going to do? What am I, a monster? Like a ghost monster on Halloween?”
  • “Pillar’s about to fall down.”
  • “Wow. That seemed to have a lot of logic problems.”
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