TV Picks: ‘Portlandia,’ Australian mysteries, ‘Legit’

Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein star in the fourth season of the IFC sketch comedy “Portlandia.”
(Augusta Quirk / IFC)

“Portlandia” (IFC, Thursdays). The sketch-comedy expression of the best-friendship of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein begins its fourth season this week.

Brownstein, formerly of the band Sleater-Kinney and currently of Wild Flag, has long since proved herself as a comedian, while, Armisen, who spent a generation on “Saturday Night Live,” has been named bandleader for Seth Meyers’ imminently arriving late-late-night show; their series, whose many guest players include musicians alongside comics and actors, sits at the intersection of their several shared interests.

Its alt-cred, however, does not translate into superiority: The two inhabit their characters -- a wide range of ages and types in a panoply of well-chosen costumes and wigs -- with sympathy. Although their show has youth appeal, the principals are themselves not, chronologically speaking, young; their comedy is seasoned with experience.

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Although familiar characters reappear -- Bryce Shivers and Lisa Eversman are back, suggesting not that you put a bird on it, or pickle it, but that you rent it out -- to judge by its first four episodes, this year the series is less site-specific, though still specific about sites, titling each skit with the name of a neighborhood or street.

This is possibly because the fairyland that is Portland, Ore., (a place where, according to “Portlandia,” the 1990s never died and the 1890s live again) has proved to be merely a bellwether of national cultural and consumer trends. (We are all Portlanders.) And because what makes people different is ultimately less interesting, and funny, than what makes them the same -- even when what makes them the same is a quality of mutual incomprehensibility.

The first sketch of the year, in which guest Kirsten Dunst is haunted by ghosts who died from “confusion” -- “Sitting kills,” says one, “Standing’s bad for you -- we heard it, on NPR” says the other -- goes right to the heart of one of the show’s repeating points, that living right (even in a famously livable city) is a stressful proposition.

Also this season: Kumail Nanjiani as a date fact-checker (“You have come up with a score just above a sex grifter, but not dangerous,” he says to Armisen’s character after their interview), and as a human bandwidth manager, to whom Brownstein’s character, overwhelmed by all the Facebook and Twitter responses she owes online friends, goes to declare “social bankruptcy.”


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There’s also Steve Buscemi in a melodrama about celery; the Order Grill, “where the ordering experience is tailored to your needs”; guest shots from Olivia Wilde, Jeff Tweedy, Jeff Goldblum, Annie St. Vincent Clark, Maya Rudolph, Vanessa Bayer and Kim Gordon; Jello Biafra as a punk waking from a coma after years to wonder where all the anger’s gone; and the year’s best line to date: “The bass is a gateway instrument.”

“Mr. and Mrs. Murder”; “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”; “Jack Irish” (Acorn Media DVD, and/or streaming from Acorn.TV). From the upside-down land of Australia come three very satisfying mystery series. (All are set in Melbourne, perhaps because it is the historical center of the nation’s film industry, and possibly for the added funk of its being the second city, after Sydney.)

As antipodean pop bands occasionally break through to American consciousness without fully reforming our consciousness of the land down under, every so often an Australian show makes itself known here, to our recurrent surprise. Maybe it is because, unlike romantic old England, Australia is a country quite like this one -- relatively young and a former colony with similar historical difficulties and with vistas, notwithstanding some peculiarities of vegetation and architecture, often reminiscent of our own. At once familiar and foreign, it is like a kind of parallel America, where every sentence sounds like a question.

In “Mr. and Mrs. Murder, " Kat Stewart and Shaun Micallef play Nicola and Charlie Buchanan, a handsome couple whose business cleaning crime scenes leads them into mystery solving those crimes. (Bucking established practice, the local police detective is only too happy to have their help.) Nicola (sounds like “Nick and Nora”) is the driving force, the Nancy Drew of the piece, attractive and 40-ish; Charlie is her prematurely silver-haired, amused and amusing other half. (The mix of comedy to tragedy is roughly that of “Castle.”) Like most shows of its kind, wheresoever they come from, it tours different cultures, subcultures and landscapes.

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As does “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries,” in a period framework. Essie Davis stars as a glamorous upper-crust Bohemian with a late-'20s Louise Brooks bob and Mae Murray lips. Her free-spirited life and easy acquaintance with and acceptance of People of All Sorts, along with a generous nature and love of adventure, lead her into the temptation of (amateur) detective work. (Like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, she is a person around whom crime happens.) In the course of the series, she assembles a little family around her, including a couple of socialist teamsters, a ward, and a companion (what we would call a personal assistant). She also has a Butler named Butler. Nathan Page is the handsome police detective whose business she is all up in.

Guy Pearce, who has had a bit of an American career, stars in “Jack Irish,” a series of feature-length adaptations -- three, so far -- of detective novels by Peter Temple. A lawyer turned private investigator, propelled toward the lower depths by a personal tragedy that has not, however, erased his sense of humor -- though may have darkened it -- he is a more dysfunctional, disheveled version of Jim Rockford or Philip Marlowe, with more identifying features. (The lower depths are, of course, a friendlier place than the rarefied heights.) He frequents a pub whose ancient barflies worship his late father, a legendary soccer star; consorts with colorful racetrack types; and studies under an old German cabinetmaker to steady his life. Like many neo-noir PIs, he listens to jazz when he’s feeling contemplative or low, and clearly would not care if some TV writer pointed out the cliche.


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“Legit” (FXX, Wednesdays). Speaking of Australians, comedian Jim Jeffries’ sometimes troubling sitcom is back for a second season.

Where the transformation of stand-up comics into sitcom stars (in series “based on the comedy of”) once was accomplished with the addition of an eccentric family and a new name (or at least a new last name) and profession for the lead -- as in witness protection -- more recently the thing has been for the comic to “play himself” (or, less often, herself). Thus your “Louie,” your “Maron,” your “Curb Your Enthusiasm” -- shows whose less than flattering, self-reflexive, self-reflective view of its main character-cum-creator “Legit” shares; they are men Old Enough To Know Better who keep doing the worse things that phrase implies.

Although the women in “Legit” suffer, as a class, from the Fear of a Female Planet that has powered comedy since before Henny Youngman first led a joke with the words “my wife,” that view seems to be understood, at least, as a losing proposition whose wages are loneliness, a life of sublimated self-loathing and male roommates. (This season John Ratzenberger, who was Cliff on “Cheers,” joins sons Dan Bakkedahl and DJ Qualls in cohabiting with Jeffries.) And there is a softness to Jeffries -- physical as well as tonal -- as well as an intermittent, inconvenient, irrepressible quasi-selflessness that keeps him likable, or likable enough.

Indications are that this year some soul-searching is on the docket. Episode titles (“Death,” “Racism,” “Love,” “Anger,” “Justice”) indicate serious intent somewhere beneath the masturbation jokes.


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