For what it could have been, “The Storytellers”, the seventh-ever premiere of “Portlandia”, introduced itself as a manageably ridiculous show to any potential new viewers. It’s a reasonable strategy for courting unfamiliar audiences with a fresh season, but half-assed and seemingly unconfident for such a brilliantly unique show.
For older fans, the kick-off merely kept its cards disappointingly close to its vest. Considering last season’s off the wall “24”/“The Ring”-esque perspective-bending finale, the latest premiere sold its weirdos as too palatable. The show sucked in its stomach to fit into its original shape as a sketch show with stories delineated into three-minute increments that share tonal similarities, but don’t double dip from universe to universe. For such a rich show invested in vivid world building from the get-go, this most recent premiere is either a blank check ready to be filled with new recurring characters or a very anticlimactic start. The episode is absolutely funny moment-by-moment and its gentle treatment of its weirdos is as astute as ever, but the orthodoxy this very well-established show returns to is odd.
“Portlandia” shifts its focus from the micro to the universal in its Season 7 premiere. Despite the title, these sketches could take place in any semi-liberal American city. It could be that the comedic well runs dry on teasing the titular city after this many years or that the brick-and-mortar Portland has become disillusioned with the unglamorous reality of a long-running television show holding up day-to-day life with production, but it’s unlikely those real world politics would influence the tone of a premiere so heavily. City-specific mentions are rare, although the symbiotic relationship between “Portlandia” and the real world Hotel deLuxe, portrayed as Hotel Deluxe in the show, continues. The real life Hotel deLuxe does offer “Portlandia Portland” tours while meanwhile wonderfully phlegm yellow suits make an appearance in the show as the standard uniform for the maddeningly tedious Deluxe employees. It should also be noted that while many favorite characters were inconspicuously absent, a handful of celebrity cameos tested the anti-social sensibilities of Carrie and Fred’s characters like famous temperature checks to the co-stars’ antics. In the Hotel Deluxe, various incarnations of Armisen as concierge or busboy exaggerate the difficulties of mundane tasks and detail how faucets work and which walls are obviously present to an exhausted Vanessa Bayer. Bayer ends the episode dreading a knocking housekeeper so much, she flees by crashing through the four-story window and miraculously ends up in the arms of the original concierge, who sweetly assumes she just doesn’t know how windows work. Unfortunately and although only a brief cameo, Bayer’s anger is one of the most memorable moments from the well-behaved episode.
As co-stars, Armisen and Brownstein’s respective strengths and talents as character-y characters are tested and true, so it’s disappointing that the most intense and memorable character of the episodes are often played by a guest star. The pro identity theft turned storytelling teacher that helps Carrie and Fred’s characters orchestrate an off-off-off-Broadway-esque storytelling experience dominates a Rocky-like mentoring montage to ruthlessly demand from the couple they hijack the attention of, all at their dinner party. When Carrie and Fred do hold their party captive for a choreographed, musically accompanied story, the episode is stopped before audiences can gauge their colleague’s reactions. “The Storytellers” is a story of weirdos meeting the normal world and the normal world reacting gently, subdued even, to their weirdness. It won’t scare new viewers off, but isn’t “Portlandia” too mature to be caught in the trap of likeability? The performances are solid, sketches are well-written and many small moments are mined for large laughs, but considering “Portlandia’s” past work, this premiere is lacking.
Any objective perception of Portland was never the objective for the show: what matters is “Portlandia’s” portrayal of Portland. In this episode, that was barely present. It’s absolutely Carrie and Fred’s intimate commitment to the other’s character’s bizarre idiosyncrasies that makes tiny moments hilarious, but none are particularly memorable. The premiere does lay the foundation for a lot of fun settings and characters; hopefully this first installment was a uniquely guarded episode.