2014 was something of a mixed bag for Portlandia. On one hand it was the show’s best year in terms of industry recognition since its 2011 Peabody Award, with its first major Emmy nomination for Fred Armisen as Outstanding Supporting Actor and no less of a comedy legend than Jerry Seinfeld declaring it “the best comedy on TV right now, and easily one of the best comedies of all time.” However it was also a year where that title was harder than ever to defend, challenged by brilliant newcomers Review and Broad City and creative surges from Key & Peele and Inside Amy Schumer. Against this competition Portlandia failed to measure up, with a fourth season that had its moments but was creatively lackluster next to the heights of season three.
Given that both Armisen and Carrie Brownstein are busy with higher-profile gigs at this point—Armisen as Seth Meyers’ band leader, Brownstein with the resurrection of Sleater-Kinney—it’d be entirely reasonable to assume that Portlandia had stopped being a priority or stopped being as much fun to do. Yet that assumption is dismissed early almost immediately within a few minutes of the fifth season premiere, an episode that simultaneously feels like the show of the last four years and a completely new entity. “The Story Of Toni And Candace” is the welcome flickers of Portlandia trying something new rather than coasting, and while not a slam-dunk it’s a promising sign of things to come.
The newness of it has to do with the fact that for the first time, Portlandia entirely abandons the sketch comedy format. The series has flirted with long-form storytelling over the course of its life—interconnected sketches in “Brunch Special”and “Blackout,” multiple season-long narratives in season three—but has always kept one foot in the short-term story. Here, the episode is entirely devoted to one of the show’s central couples, with Armisen and Brownstein firmly in the shoes and shawls of Women and Women First’s Toni and Candace. Or rather, the pumps, pantsuits, and shoulder pads of early ‘90s Toni and Candace, as the episode flashes back to their origin story as high-powered New York publishing executives. Thrown together due to a merger, the two were pitted against each other to run the “chick lit” department of their new firm, and a fierce rivalry was sparked almost immediately.
If Portlandia is moving to narrow the focus of each episode, they selected the right pair to start with. Toni and Candace are the most iconic members of the Portlandia ensemble, avatars of the holier-than-thou and passive-aggressive attitudes that the show revels in satirizing. It’s refreshing to see both of them in a different setting, still sitting on their barely repressed rage but channeling it in different ways—and towards each other. The dinner between the two where they go from chitchatting about Murphy Brown to suggestive breadstick threats is a highlight with the degree of barbs they send each other’s way, as is the tennis match-pace of efforts to undercut each other at the office that traps their hapless secretary in the middle. (Toni: “It was like a game of chess. All strategy and sussing each other out.” Candace: “But it was also checkers, in its own way. In the positioning. Of the queen.” Toni: “Which is chess. Which was my original analogy.”)
And crucially, getting to spend the entire episode with them allows for deeper connection to the characters. As much as Portlandia has built up affection for Toni and Candace over the course of four years, it’s always shied away from peeling into their psyche, content to drop cryptic hints like Candace’s latent pyromania from “Brunch Special” or her having a son all the way back in “Winter In Portlandia.” With the entire episode devoted to the two of them, we get to see more sides of their characters. The ridiculously charged dance-off, beyond being physical comedy Portlandia’s tightly wound population doesn’t usually engage in, is a great exhibition of how much energy they normally cloak behind faux-polite words. And Candace’s emotional breakdown to Toni when she realizes how she’s been used is the demonstration of why the two have stayed united for so long despite not seeming to like each other very much: forged in the fires of adversity, a credo of sisterhood that both value too highly to break.
The flashback format of the episode also forces a lot more thought about what’s really going on than in basic sketches. If the narrative has a weakness it’s that the male publishing executives, particularly CEO Bruce Nathanson—a Richard Branson-type “wolf in wolf’s clothing”—are depicted as not merely chauvinists but sexual harassment archetypes to the point that the characters in The Wolf Of Wall Street would tell them to take it down a notch. Casual joking about cocaine use, slapping asses with metronomic rhythm, and objectifying women (“Did you see the vag on that one?”): even by Portlandia standards it’s broad. The show’s comedy works best when it’s normal people confronted with the absurdity, here it’s mild absurdity put up next to even greater absurdity, and something feels off about the dynamic.
The broadness of the whole thing is so broad that it leads you to take a step back and reconsider the origins of the story being told. Toni and Candace are proven to continually take the littlest of slights and blow them into earth-shattering catastrophes, so it’s entirely plausible there’s some unreliable narrator action going on here. Bruce and the other executives were surely sexist pigs, but in the crusade that Toni and Candace see themselves as waging that’s not good enough. This is their origin story, but it’s also their story, and by definition it needs to be framed in such a way that makes them the unquestioned heroes, burning down the villain’s castle and fleeing with the damsels in distress (i.e. the yacht and the scantily clad models respectively).
The question could even be raised as to whether or not the entire story is a flight of fancy on the part of its narrators—or at least it would be if the episode didn’t close with Candace getting a ride in Toni’s high-powered sports car. It creates an interesting level of ambiguity that runs through the episode, and also to wonder if the photo accompanying the resultant article will be the clue to put Bruce on their trail once again. Could this season see “The Story Of Toni And Candace 2: Women Harder”?
Yet the episode doesn’t need to serve as a narrative building block, as it works entirely well as a closed-ended story. “The Story Of Toni And Candace” is more an episode of a sitcom than it is a sketch comedy, and after years of Portlandia threatening to take that step it’s eminently rewarding to see them giving the approach a chance. It’s unclear if the season will follow this pattern beyond the first couple of weeks, but given the strength of the pairings they’ve set up over the last few years, there’s enough material to power a season that may live up to its loftiest reputation.
- Hello again everyone! Welcome to another season of Portlandia coverage. I promise not to spend every other review griping about a lack of serialization this time.
- This Week In Portland: Although the final scene portrays Toni and Candace as escaping from a New York marina, that illusion is entirely undercut by the glimpse of at least three different Portland bridges from their lifeboat. Unless the blondes rowing the boat somehow managed to find a tributary connecting the Hudson to the Willamette.
- Headline of the Killingsworth Neighborhood News: Backyard Bees Really A Thing. (Also, if their writer has questions about the bathroom policies of Women And Women First, Steve Buscemi would be happy to help on an exposé.)
- It’s so interesting to spend the episode with only Toni and Candace that once the two dress up as Kirk and Jeremy to take the chick lit jobs, it’s a moment of disappointment before it becomes clear Armisen and Brownstein haven’t actually switched characters.
- “I had sparks in my eyes and lava in my veins!”
- “The only thing I can be head of is a Candace body!”
- “We’ve been hanging out in the non-profit world ever since.”