Tuned In: 'Portlandia' returns in advance of third season

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PORTLAND, Ore. -- When Fred Armisen stands before you dressed as a woman -- specifically, Nina, one of his characters from IFC's "Portlandia" -- it's difficult to conduct a serious interview.

Wearing a red wig, lipstick and a leopard print jacket, Mr. Armisen ("Saturday Night Live") didn't think twice about conducting an interview on the sidewalk in front of a suburban Portland strip mall in mid-September between filming scenes of the third season of "Portlandia."

The new season debuts with back-to-back episodes at 10 p.m. Jan. 4, but in advance of that, a new, bonus episode, "Winter in Portlandia," premieres tonight at 10:30 on IFC.

"I like wigs, I like these outfits," Mr. Armisen said. "Whichever way it goes gender-wise, it doesn't matter. Wigs, they really can transform you. If I put this wig on you, your whole personality changes with the wig. It immediately changes everything. Also, when I'm 90, I want to look back on my life and see pictures of myself in all kinds of wigs and know I enjoyed my life."

Mr. Armisen may be best known for his roles on "Saturday Night Live," but in the past three years "Portlandia" has developed a solid cult following as it skewers hipster-geek-liberal-Pacific Northwest culture. Mr. Armisen and his co-conspirators, co-star Carrie Brownstein and executive producer/director Jonathan Krisel, have initiated new catchphrases ("Put a bird on it!") and created a whole roster full of characters.

The sketch being filmed this warm September day is from the new season's third episode (airing Jan. 11) that tells a single story about Nina wanting her boyfriend, Lance (Ms. Brownstein), to celebrate her birthday.

Mr. Armisen filmed scenes in a salon at this strip mall, and he's preparing for another scene at a tuxedo shop where mustachioed biker Lance is getting fitted for what Nina considers appropriate party attire.

"You look so great, you look so elegant," Nina tells Lance, who objects.

"That's not a term you compliment a guy with," Lance says.

Although "Portlandia" episodes are outlined and even have what Mr. Armisen calls "a fake script" so network executives have some idea of where the show is going, individual scenes are largely improvised with multiple takes as the actors try different bits of dialogue.

This scene in the tux shop gets filmed eight times over the course of 90 minutes; only a small portion of what's filmed makes it into the actual episode.

"Nina's Birthday" is one of two in the third season of "Portlandia" to feature a single story, similar to the season two finale, "Brunch Village." In addition, the new season will for the first time feature some serialized story lines.

"We have this balancing act, which is we don't want to repeat ourselves, we don't want to do exactly the same format, but we still want to do the things people like about the show," Mr. Armisen says. "So we thought, what can we do to make it exciting for ourselves this year? We've never done a storyline that goes throughout the season. It's like a little challenge. It helps us. We don't go experimental; we just change it around enough that it feels like we're going somewhere. I think otherwise we're just sleepwalking, and we don't want to do that."

One of the stories involves the most grounded characters, Fred (Mr. Armisen) and Carrie (Ms. Brownstein), getting a new roommate, played by actress Chloe Sevigny, who is now in Pittsburgh filming the A&E pilot "Those Who Kill."

Mr. Armisen and Ms. Brownstein said they're able to poke fun at hipster-liberal culture in a way that's not mean because it's a subculture they know well.

"We come from those communities," Mr. Armisen said.

"One thing that keeps the show from being cynical or mean-spirited is we're not on the outside looking in and targeting people," Ms. Brownstein said. "We are these people. It's a world we love but also one we know parts of it can seem ridiculous. ... The DJ thing, for instance. For a while, every invitation I was given was from every one of my friends when they were DJing and even in my mind I thought, I could DJ. But then I'd stop and think, why is that a desirable thing to do? We know the ways these worlds can seem overly precious or obnoxious, but we're very fond of them."

Before the show's new season begins in earnest, tonight there's the "Winter in Portlandia" episode.

"We never really show Portland as the rainy city it can sometimes be with clouds overhead and raininess," Ms. Brownstein said in a teleconference with reporters this week. "We did deliberately write that episode and came up with ways of having the characters deal with the darkness and the dreariness of winter. It was an interesting way to make that episode distinct from the rest of the season."

Would the "Portlandia" characters ever be up for a visit to another city?

"We've thought about it a little bit," Mr. Armisen said. "For some reason I feel like it might be something to explore in Pittsburgh. I don't know what my backup is for this. Detroit seems like a weird, interesting city. So much great stuff comes from there. Minneapolis for some reason might be fun. Milwaukee is, like, a major city but just personally I'd like to explore what that would be about."

'Curiosity' blows up again

Earlier this year Discovery Channel's "Curiosity" (9 p.m. Sunday) crashed a jetliner in the Mexican desert. Now the show is crashing blimps in an effort to explain how the Hindenburg disaster actually happened.

Three replicas are built -- and destroyed -- testing three different theories of what brought the airship down.

Channel surfing

TNT's "Dallas" has continued in production and will debut on Jan. 28 as scheduled despite last month's death of star Larry Hagman, who played J.R. Ewing. TVLine.com reports the show's March 11 episode will feature J.R.'s funeral with guest appearances by "Dallas" regulars from the 1980s series. ... AMC's "Hell on Wheels" has a new showrunner, John Wirth ("V," "Fallen Skies," "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles"), and will air a 10-episode third season in the third quarter of 2013. ... The upcoming Netflix revival of "Arrested Development" has grown from 10 episodes to 12-15 episodes, according to Deadline.com. ... Don't blame the networks -- they only put on shows viewers will watch, like A&E's "Duck Dynasty," which drew 6.5 million viewers to its second-season finale earlier this month, breaking network viewership records. ... TLC has scheduled four new "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" holiday specials: Halloween (9 p.m. Jan. 6), Thanksgiving (9 p.m. Jan. 13), a new clip show (8 p.m. Feb. 10) and Christmas (8 p.m. Feb. 17). ... Comcast's Xfinity now offers more on demand choices with the addition of Streampix, a new content storage and distribution system, for former Adelphia customers. The service has been available for traditional Comcast customers since earlier this year. Details at xfinity.com. ... MTV's Jersey Shore" will have its series finale at 10 p.m. Thursday, and ABC's "Private Practice" will sign off for good on Jan. 22. ... TV Land has renewed "The Exes" for a third season and "The Soul Man" for a second season. ... Verizon's FiOS TV has added NFL Network and NFL RedZone to its online lineup, allowing subscribers to view programming online. ... WTAE-TV's 27th annual "Project Bundle-Up Telethon" raised $572,763, exceeding last year's total. ... WTAE weekend news anchor Shannon Perrine is expected to return from maternity leave next week.

Tuned In online

Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about "Parenthood," Hulu Plus and "Great Performances" on WQED. This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on "American Horror Story," "Downton Abbey" and "Amish Mafia." Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.

This week's podcast includes conversation about SAG Award nominations, 20 years of Syfy and "Mel Brooks Strikes Back!" Subscribe or listen at http://old.post-gazette.com/podcast.


TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook for breaking TV news.


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