Much like the progressive movements it puts under the Microscope of Comedy, IFC’s Portlandia is simultaneously good for you and a tad bit annoying. Season 2 premiered tonight with more polish than much of Season 1, but “Mixology” still suffered from some of the same problems: It just wasn’t consistent. But that’s not a Portlandia problem, that’s an obstacle that even the best sketch shows face.
It may still be uneven, but what’s looking up for the show, which is written by and stars Saturday Night Live‘s Fred Armisen and Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein, is the high quality of the good stuff. When Portlandia is at its zany best, it’s effortlessly cuts between outrageous costumes and ideas that lovingly satirize the burgeoning counterculture of Portland and other like-minded burgs — places where digging through dumpsters is considered contemporary archaeology AND a shopping trip. For Portlandia, weirder is better.
Take, for example, the brilliant opening skit of “Mixology,” in which two old-timey folks repeatedly utter “We can pickle that!” — the “Put on a bird on it!” of 2012? — while pickling various items, from cucumbers to broken shoe heels. The sketch d/evolves (I’m not sure which) into complete lunacy, going so far as to play with your expectations and then slap them in the face by ending with the duo asking if they can use a stranger’s bathroom. It’s the kind of comedy that you can imagine being brainstormed: Armisen, Brownstein, and fellow writers Karey Dornetto and Jonathan Krisel sat around a table with a pitcher of IPA, pushed each other’s boundaries, and turned a simple idea into a collective stream-of-consciousness skit. “We Can Pickle That” is a great example of a joke among friends that grows into its own beast, straying so far from the original idea that it’s unrecognizable by the time you get to the end. But Portlandia filmed it and put it on the air.
But this type of off-recipe comedy yields varying results. About half of Portlandia‘s sketches are character-based improvs, which tend to lose steam quickly and hang around too long (the curse of Lorne Michaels projects!). The sketches featuring Fred and Carrie’s feminist bookstore counterparts, who were seen tonight getting their air conditioner repaired, and the tunnel-visioned anal couple who went to the Sandy River, felt as if they just kept going until the duo randomly decide to stop.
Portlandia thrives the wackier it gets. Having normal people drop by the feminist bookstore is only half weird, and plays more like an inside joke. But the episode’s backbone — the mixology material — was broken into four vertebrae to great effect: Fred and Carrie played themselves in pursuit of a hot mixologist (Andy Samberg), which sent them walking through Southern California in burkas, then on a tasty adventure through the seven seas of flavor with a pushy waiter (played by the awesome Kumail Nanjiani) at a globally themed restaurant. They ended up singing camp songs in a nightmare of a Los Angeles bar. That’s absurdity piled on top of absurdity, and that’s when Portlandia is at its best.
All told, Portlandia appears to have a bigger budget and a clearer focus as it enters its second season. And with more guest stars and better production values, it’s hard to imagine this season not topping the first. That doesn’t make it mandatory viewing yet, but it’s better than most sketch shows on TV.
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom