Portlandia has, since its beginning, been a slice-of-life show: Each episode focuses on a few different pairings (all played by creators Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein), and each episode revolves around these different pairings in the present day without much acknowledgement of their pasts. But that changes in the season 5 premiere, a chunk of television that spotlights Women and Women First owners Candace and Toni by giving us a funny, heartfelt, and surprisingly dramatic rundown of how their relationship came to be.
Although this change in format could be jolting, it happens seamlessly partly because the show’s past format inspired a gimme-more reaction due to its just minutes-long focuses on character duos. Now, here the show is giving us more—and it helps that they kicked off this new format by telling the backstory of two of the silliest and most intriguing characters.
And the backstory is this: Once upon a time, Candace and Toni were lady-suits. They worked in corporate offices and ended up competing to be head of a new chick-lit department. Candace (Armisen) likes sleeping her way to the top while Toni (Brownstein), a Harvard and MIT grad, dubs herself a “whiz kid.”
Their initial interactions, all tense and hilariously uncomfortable, culminate in a dance-off (set to Snap’s “I’ve Got the Power”) that slightly resembles Shia LaBeouf’s and Maddie Ziegler’s “Elastic Hearts” tango but with less nudity. Despite the fact that they’re dancing, seemingly an enjoyable activity, Candace and Toni maintain their trademark seriousness, making the scene extra ridiculous—and extra fun to watch.
The episode has an unexpected amount of real-talk though, most notably when Candace overhears Bruce—the guy who said the chick-lit job was going to go to either Candace or Toni—telling his best bros that he’s totally going to give the job to a guy. Candace, who is just waking up from a romp with Bruce, runs to Toni and tells her what she heard. Then Toni says this:
“Chick lit shouldn’t be some term that diminishes what it means for women to be part of literature. It’s just saying, like, ‘Look, here’s your tiny little category.’ We’ve been given a morsel.” Round of applause for Toni, please.
With this, the two’s hatred for men is born. Their conversation about their newfound misandry comes off as more drama than comedy, and somehow, it works. Armisen and Brownstein are skilled at mixing together the heavy and the light, inserting a witty line just when things are beginning to get too dark just to remind us that, yes, this is a comedy—but one that can use humor to bring up some relevant, important issues.
To get back at Bruce, the two dress up as mustachioed men so they can get the chick-lit jobs. After that mission is accomplished, they end up hanging out with Bruce on a Wolf of Wall Street-style yacht before setting said yacht on fire and escaping on a life boat. And this is when we find out the origin of the book store’s name.
“I know that it’s generally women and children first, but I’m just a little baby!” Bruce wails as he watches Candace and Toni float away on the boat. “It’s women,” Toni says, pauses, then continues, “and women first.”
For a show to change how it does things five seasons in is both risky and brave, and it pays off for Portlandia: This premiere proves that Armisen and Brownstein can create both viral-ready, short sketches, as well as deeper narratives—and that we’re in for a weird-as-ever (this is a compliment) season.