The final season of IFC’s “Portlandia,” which kicks off Jan. 18, is less focused on geography and more on relationships that have been built.
PORTLAND, Ore. — In a sketch later in the final season of IFC’s “Portlandia” (10 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 18), characters played by series stars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein find themselves at the mercy of a clerk played by recurring guest star Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley,” “The Big Sick”).
They’re at Disaster Hut, trying to buy supplies for a potential future calamity, when talk turns to what desert-island disc they would choose for an emergency.
“We worked backwards from ‘desert island disc,’ ” Armisen said during a visit to the show’s set during the last days of filming in September. “It’s such a common question, what’s your favorite record? And the idea of what scenario would have to exist for that to happen. And once we knew Kumail was going to be in the scene, we engineered it so it would be us asking him for something. He’s the person in power.”
Why that set up?
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“It’s the way he improvises, the way he speaks,” Armisen said. “He speaks with authority but with humility at the same time.”
“Portlandia” used a tax preparer’s office to play the role of Disaster Hut, filling it with signage (“Be ready. Be safe.”) to sell the theme, which turns out to have a prevalent role in the show’s final season, reflecting real-world, societal anxiety in the era of President Donald Trump, a nuclear North Korea, environmental chaos (see: last summer’s wildfires) and terrorism.
“I remember looking at the board [in the writers room] and we had all these index cards up, separated by episode and sketch, and there was a permeating anxiety in so many of the sketches, like, ‘Cancel it,’ ‘Let’s give up,’ ” Brownstein said. “Inadvertently, without having looked for a coherent theme, there is definitely an underpinning of doom for sure. It is the end of the ‘Dream’ this season.”
That would be the “Dream of the ’90s,” the musical sketch that kicked off “Portlandia” back in 2011, positing Portland as a city where young people go to retire. And while a Pacific Northwest aesthetic coursed through the show, Armisen said “Portlandia” became less geographic-specific: “As the show has gone on it, I feel like it’s less about the city and more about the characters. It became a little more internal, more about relationships.”
Brownstein, a Seattle native who’s lived in Portland since 2001, doesn’t buy the argument that “Portlandia” has changed Portland, except maybe when it comes to tourism.
“Our show is an easy target for what has changed,” she said. “I think that is a very easy and pat and paltry way of assessing how Portland has changed. When you look at San Francisco and other cities on the West Coast — Seattle — it was inevitable that Portland would suffer, if you want to use that term, or benefit from the same growth that those other cities have. I think we have just been a focal point for people because it’s a show that’s in conversation with the city and a city in conversation with itself.”
Eight seasons after it began, the “Portlandia” conversation will soon end. Or will it?
“Every time someone announces the end of anything, it’s the worst,” Armisen said. “Five years later they’re doing some other version of it.”
“It’s a ‘hell freezes over’ situation and then ‘We’re back!’ ” Brownstein added. “The only reason to bury something is to resurrect it, but if you get out of the cycle you can just do whatever you want.”
So fans may not have seen the last of some “Portlandia” characters, who could find new life in future Armisen-Brownstein collaborations. But the weekly, annual IFC series will be done — for now at least.
Armisen and Brownstein say one episode this season, likely to air last, has at least the hint of a series finale vibe.
“One nice thing about sketch is the expectation is not the same as it was for ‘The Sopranos’ or ‘Girls’ or ‘Six Feet Under’ or anything like that,” Brownstein said. “But we did take it into consideration. We do have one episode that I think is a summation, that has some sentimentality to it, but we definitely didn’t want to do anything that would feel too on-the-nose.”