Carrie Brownstein, Fred Armisen (IFC)

Season six of Portlandia has gotten a lot of mileage out of pushing its characters outside their comfort zones. Some of it’s lighter stuff like asking Vincent to go out in sunlight, but there’s been more than a few stories that have actual heft to them beyond normal expectations. Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein are regularly introducing situations that not only challenge the characters but also force them to ask serious questions about their lives: Fred confronting his lost youth, Carrie considering parenthood, Doug and Claire exploring life post-breakup. It’s an approach that reflects the show’s age and understanding of its universe, even if it needs to resort to absurdity in order to reset the status quo.

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“Lance Is Smart” is another solid execution of this formula. Admittedly, the fact that it focuses on my previously admitted favorite Portlandia couple meant that I was predisposed from the start, but tonight’s episode lives up to all my lofty expectations. Like the better episodes of the season, it doesn’t just take one character and see what happens when things change, it uses that as a chain reaction to spur the other one on, going from identity crisis to crises.

The crises are triggered by Lance running afoul of a pothole on his motorcycle, leaving him injured in the street—with cries of “I am definitely injured!” in case anyone missed it the first time. It forces two reconsiderations of his lifestyle, first when Nina insists that he get rid of his bike and then when he’s diagnosed as needing glasses by optometrist Karl (This marks the return of Mitch Hurwitz, who’s becoming to Portlandia what Andy Daly is to Silicon Valley in terms of medical expertise.) Lance, as previously established, is a character who initially recoils at any idea of change, and his life becoming the b-story of “The Last Temptation Of Homer” produces some prime mustachioed Brownstein sulking.

Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein, Mitch Hurwitz (IFC)

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His unwanted evolution becomes easier to take once he locates a guru by the name of Jarvis (played by Robert Smigel of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and Saturday TV Funhouse fame). Despite a rocky introduction of the awkward manly whip-crack handshake, Jarvis is able to get Lance to disclose an appreciation of Fellini films, and a bonding via montage is triggered that sets Lance on a new path. While said path is a far cry from his usual muscle-head approach, it’s in keeping with past behaviors. Despite his initial hesitation Lance is a character who’s always able to roll with whatever life throws at him, and he’s been open to adventurous sex, unexpected fatherhood, and cool step-dads at various points throughout the life of the series. Buttoning up his shirts and attending Imogen Cunningham exhibits isn’t that much of a stretch.

But while Lance is uncovering hidden depths, Nina is entirely out of hers when it comes to talking to their new friends. Portlandia isn’t a show that relies heavily on cringe comedy to get its point across, but the dinner party scene is a prime execution of it (and thankfully not as painfully extreme as another dinner party). All our experience with Nina is that she’s the last person you expect to have a serious conversation with, and her efforts to try to steer the conversations into anecdotes about amusement parks and batteries are rife with hilarious tragedy, falling as they do on increasingly blank expressions. What cuts the deepest in the awkwardness are the quiet moments where she realizes her position, being snubbed at a toast and then being yelled at by Lance in the car.

That quieter direction keeps “Lance Is Smart” on the right path as it shifts its focus from Lance to Nina. You’d expect some sort of grand gesture from Nina to get Lance back to his old behaviors, but instead she turns her focus inward, wanting to better herself in the same way she sees Lance having bettered himself. She goes about it in the most Nina of fashions though, identifying a child prodigy named Matthew—previously seen recruiting ecoterrorists to picket his parents—as just the person to help her sharpen up on such topics as fractions, dinosaurs, and colonial history. This is an idea that could easily be used to ridicule Nina, but in every instance, it never introduces the idea that there’s anything wrong with a twelve-year-old educating a grown woman. His mom’s even cool with it, inviting her to dinner and being supportive with only a glimmer of patronization.

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With her new knowledge comes a desire to prove itself, and that manifests in a sequel to the dinner party. Here, the comedy segues from cringeworthy to farce, as Matthew’s gift of a dictionary turns into a resource that Nina needs to keep running to every time a word beyond sixth-grade reading level gets dropped in conversation. Director Jonathan Krisel does a great job elevating Nina’s frustration as bigger words come up and she feels the need to react, leading to a blowup when she tries a phonetic interpretation of solipsistic and the rest of the table is dumbfounded. It’s a moment simultaneously hilarious for Armisen’s exaggerated performance and sad because we’ve seen the work Nina put in.

Fred Armisen (IFC)

Jarvis suggests Nina might be having an affair, and one seems to manifest once Matthew invites a forlorn Nina to a sock hop—a predictable direction, but one that provides just the right surreal flavor to keep the story light. The way that “Lance Is Smart” never outright ridicules Nina for seeking a middle-schooler’s guidance cuts both ways, as at no point does anyone brings up the fact that Matthew is twelve and every interaction with him is as an adult. When Lance moves in for his traditional handshake, they crack as equals. When they start wrestling no chaperone sees it as problematic—if anything Nina’s excited to have two people fighting over her. And when Matthew gets a little frisky, Nina’s complaint isn’t “You’re twelve!” but rather “I’m married!” It creates an appealing sense of underlying oddness, that someone should be shouting the obvious fact yet never does.

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While the resolution to the story feels a bit abrupt, it still works because it relies on the way Nina and Lance have developed into Portlandia’s most believable romantic pairing. Lance recognizes both the effort that Nina made for him, and that his relationship with her is far more important than any new friends or identities he might try to forge. The sweetness evolves past the absurdity in a way that many of this season’s better episodes have managed, furthering the impression that as Portlandia moves through its later years, the way it evolved from caricature to character will be its most impressive achievement.

Stray observations:

  • This Week In Portland: Lance meets Jarvis at Hollywood Vintage, one of Portland’s best shops for costumes and vintage wear. I’ve raided their racks for glasses frames, fedoras, bow ties, and vests over the years.
  • Nina’s comment about being a married woman means that my dreams of seeing a big Portlandia wedding special are likely crushed. Sigh.
  • On the other end of the spectrum, I cheered a bit once Nina said she got her GED for her as opposed to pleasing Lance. It puts a great capper on the arc, and also makes me wonder how she and Kimmy Schmidt would interact if they were in the same class.
  • I like the idea of Mitch Hurwitz evolving into a recurring piece of the Portlandia universe who is to medicine what Kumail Nanjiani is to help desks. The closing credits scene of him trying ti see Nina’s breasts “in a medical way” was great.
  • Things Lance mistakes letters for on his eye exam: Hangman, nose ring.
  • Nina, on the Revolutionary War: “Is that the war where they said the British were coming?” Matthew: “Yes.” Nina: “Were they coming?” Matthew: “Yes.” Nina: “Where were they going?”
  • “Why does dinner have to be a crossword puzzle that I’ll never get!?”
  • “Where are you going?” “Just to look at some buildings and stuff.”
  • “I’m gonna tear you up like a bag of chips!”
  • Season finale next week! IFC’s press team sent me ramen as a promotional item along with my screener, so take that as you will.

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