When Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen poke fun at aggressive bikers, artisan lightbulb makers or frustratingly pleasant store clerks on “Portlandia,” they’re showing how certain, eccentric people go about their lives.
Reflecting on the eighth and final season of “Portlandia,” which aired its season premiere on IFC Thursday night, Brownstein says she is humbled at how their show has reflected the cultures and lifestyles of all sorts of people.
“When people say, oh that’s so ‘Portlandia,’ they’re talking about a phenomena, a particularity or a way of viewing a situation, or acting within a situation or an ideology and way of curating one’s life,” Brownstein said during a recent phone interview with TheWrap. “That they would characterize it as ‘Portlandia’ is really so surprising and gratifying.”
This latest season finds Fred and Carrie satirizing podcasters who create drama and crisis out of thin air, and a dating app culture that feels like it requires a team of engineers to navigate. Both topics would’ve never been on anyone’s radar back when the show debuted in 2011. Brownstein talked to TheWrap about saying goodbye to her favorite “Portlandia” residents and her life after the show.
Brian Welk: How would you say the show has changed over the last eight seasons?
Carrie Brownstein: There are elements of it that have changed, but there’s a lot that we’ve kept the same on purpose as a means of protecting the charm and occasional clumsiness from which we started. The things that feel unpolished about the show are part of what makes it unique. There’s always this impulse to become more grandiose, self-referencing or even indulgent as you accumulate season after season, sketch after sketch. You start to think in a more high-minded way. And the trick has been how to maintain some of that specificity.
We had a first season with more sophisticated ideas that we couldn’t deploy because of budget or the fact that we now have the wherewithal to do it. But in the ways that we’ve pushed ourselves sometimes narratively, there were a few seasons in the middle where we were looking at making longer narrative arcs. There was a season where a character has a roommate for the season, or some episodes coalesced on a single idea, like we had a finale where the whole city was involved in a blackout or a brunch, and there were ways we tried to keep things very nimble and elastic. But I think we always went in with the same mission, which was to make something that was relatable and that felt like there was a thread of authenticity and earnestness at the center of it. But in order to surprise people and defy expectations, we had to get to some place of absurdity somewhere in the middle. This season as an example, we have a woman played by Rachel Bloom looking at dating apps, and then we veer into a NASA-style control center in the living room. That’s where we tried to push ourselves, just getting to a place where this is not what the audience expected for the second beat of this story line.
You’ve done these characters for so long, and in this season, you’re giving them story arcs and send offs. What else can audiences expect?
Without trying to be too sentimental, we did think of some of our favorite characters and strategize how to give them a sense of closure. Now sometimes because people watch the show a la carte or in a way that’s not contemporaneous with what’s going on now. People might watch this show for the first time years from now. We didn’t want to make it so that if you watched Season 8 first and that was your first way into “Portlandia” that you would wonder why is this character dying or pregnant. For ourselves and for fans of our show who have been watching all along, we did go in thinking about Kyle’s [MacLachlan] character as the Mayor, how we would like to send him off, some of the various couples on the show, we wanted to intimate how they might be moving forward after you say goodbye to them, sort of leaving them with a remnant of, “OK, that’s the last time we see them, and they seem to be in a good place.” You care and feel like leaving people in a place that felt peaceful in some way, like this would be a kind place in which to leave them.
You have some great guest stars this season, like a supergroup of punk rockers from Black Flag and Fugazi. Are there any cameos that you would’ve loved to have done or had an idea for but couldn’t make it work?
I can’t think of anyone in particular that we kept trying for. We were so lucky over eight seasons. We ended up with so many musicians, athletes, actors and public figures on our show of all different stripes and walks of life and perspectives. They all just had such energy and enthusiasm to their performance and for the show, and really to the set. Everyone who was on the show was a fan and was really excited to have a lot of say and creative control over the process, the creation of the character and enjoy the weakness of the process where it’s a very instinctual set. There’s a script, but we’re willing to deviate from it. There’s a lot of nimbleness there.
You’ve directed a few episodes and you’ve done some drama recently. What do you think is in the cards for you as an actress?
I have a pilot with Hulu based on a memoir I wrote a couple of years ago, “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl” — a fictional version of my life coming up as a musician. So that’s what I’m literally focused on next. But I’ll be doing some more directing on other people’s shows. I just finished being in a movie that Ike Barinholtz wrote and directed called “The Oath” and I’m also in Gus Van Sant’s new movie that’s premiering at Sundance this week, “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot.”
For me, though, writing, directing and producing is where my heart is and my focus is right now. That’s the most rewarding, and acting is just kind of the icing on the cake, and I like when people reach out to me for that. I’m always enthusiastic. But writing has been the design of my career, whether that’s in music or essays or television, so that’s what I’ll continue in as I grow and improve myself.
I know Sleater-Kinney is working on an album. Is there a tour in the cards at any point?
First, we have to finish the record. I would say next year. At some point I would imagine some kind of album and touring, but it’s a very slow writing process, and it’s based on all of our schedules. But it’s always rewarding to write and play with Janet and Corin, my two bandmates. So that’s ongoing and something I would never lose sight of.