Seasonal Review: Portlandia, Season 1

In the past two and a half years, I have spent six hours at once wandering through a four-story bookstore that covers a city block. I have seen bars with at least 20 people in Santa suits playing pool, and once witnessed a man in a derby carrying a restored brass diving helmet on his shoulder. I’ve been passed by bicyclists covered in fluorescent scraps as I listened to a bluegrass cover of “London Calling” in the middle of a dozen-block-long street fair. And without even walking half a mile on a weeknight, I can eat mammoth sandwiches piled high with local ingredients, drink 11.1 percent ABV barleywines and have my pick of doughnuts covered in Froot Loops, bacon or grape Kool-Aid powder.

How do I get to do this? I live in Portland, Oregon.

A city known for its roses, craft beers and live music, my adopted hometown has long been proud of its reputation as one of America’s most esoteric major cities – bumper stickers are readily available exhorting the goal to “Keep Portland Weird” and declaring it “the People’s Republic of Portland.” It’s been described as the city where “everyone is living a minimum of three lives… a poet, a drag queen and a bookstore clerk,” and a “Lord of the Flies” setting for white people, destined for a spree of “mass riots and murder when the local grocery co-op runs out of organic wild salmon.”

And now, Portland’s identity has been once again been distilled into slogan: the place where young people go to retire, where you don’t have to give up clowning, where can put a bird on something and call it art – where the dream of the 90s is alive. Those wonderful observations come to us from Portlandia, the IFC sketch comedy/improv series from the minds of Fred Armisen (Saturday Night Live) and Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney), a parodic love letter evolving out of the duo’s Thunderant improv/sketch comedy videos. With its first season recently wrapped and a second season already green-lit by IFC, I decided to take a look at the whole to see if the show was worthy of being the city’s standard bearer. And while its first six episodes aren’t the perfect encapsulation of what Portland stands for, it’s an affectionate spotlight of its quirks and one perfectly willing to needle it for taking its ideals far too seriously.

A large part of my own affection for Portlandia starting out comes from the fact that this is a show that quite simply looks like Portland. That might seem like an idiotic thing to say considering the fact that the show was shot entirely in the Portland city limits over nineteen days, but the show does a very good job of setting its scenes in the right locations – the hipper coffee shops and the food cart pods, the newer architecture melding with older buildings and historical landmarks. On a specific level I can tell you the exact locations where the show’s opening musical number was shot, have eaten at least two of the restaurants shown in sketches* and not only identify all off the opening credits’ landmarks but also point out three I’ve thrown up at. As a resident it makes the show feel very familiar from the start, and it seems like there’s enough to give non-residents the right mental picture of what the city is for.

*Shameless plug here: James John Cafe, featured in the “Did You Read…” sketch, is not only a prime people-watching spot but serves the best trout hash and poached eggs in the city. Get there early on Saturdays for a damn fine breakfast experience.

Structurally, Portlandia doesn’t try to take too many risks and each of the six episodes follows a fairly consistent format. Each episode has one story that takes up about half of the show (developing a song or baseball team for Portland, the discovery that Aimee Mann is working as a cleaning lady) which covers about four or five segments. In between those segments, the show has a mix of stand-alone sketches, some of whom feature recurring characters like a militant urban biker or a pair of passive-aggressive feminist bookstore owners, but for the most part aren’t connected to the main action and could be interchanged with any of the other episodes. The vast majority of the sketches, both stand-alone and story-related, are devoted to the odder people that live in Portland – the population of hipsters, hippies, artists and vagrants most people identify with the city.

So do they work? Well, like any sketch show there are some hits and some misses, but on the whole the hits outnumber the misses. Those hits tend to be the sketches that build on hipster archetypes that don’t feel unique to Portland but certainly make up its majority, such as the artisan light bulb maker (“This one’s green. A little more green than I wanted it to be. In fact I wanted it to be orange.”) and the militant urban biker (“I don’t have a driver’s license! Oregon state law – ten feet! Whole Foods is corporate!”). Their performances are pretty broadly drawn – and are probably as applicable to parts of Brooklyn or Austin as they are Portland – but each one’s grounded in enough truth Portland residents can easily point to them and say “Yeah, I know someone like that.”

A large part of this is due to the performances turned out by both Armisen and Brownstein. Armisen’s a capable enough actor that he can inhabit the spectrum of hipster from aggressive to asinine, and Brownstein’s indie rock goddess background – plus the fact that she’s lived in Portland for a decade – means she’s already a type as natural to the city as the rain,** and easily inhabits dreamy idealism or matter-of-fact superiority. Rounding out the cast in half of the episodes is Kyle MacLachlan as Portland’s mayor (our actual mayor plays his assistant) is a wonderful bit of recurring casting, serving as the voice of Portland’s big ideas and its inferiority complex with Seattle (which I’ve never witnessed personally, but I have heard baristas debating the merits of our northern neighbor’s coffee beans).

**Huge, huge points to the show for not making any jokes about the constant rain in Portland beyond one mention of cloudy days. It’s just too easy.

What Portlandia does best in its best sketches is a subtle form of satire – not outright mocking the eccentrics and hipsters who form the core of the city’s population, but pointing out how many of them miss the forest for the trees when it comes to their beliefs. Artists can get all excited about painting birds on things to make them noticeable and special, but the minute an actual bird flies in the shop they’re screaming about disease and throwing things against the walls to get it away as soon as possible. Dumpster divers point out that there’s a lot of food and items people throw away that are perfectly useful, but refuse to acknowledge most are thrown out for a good reason (“Look! Baby food! We can use it as a sauce”). Two people can scream and rant*** about a dog being chained outside a restaurant (“If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention!”) and then go to unchain their child from another post down the street. Portland is proud of itself, but it’s also fairly smug about what it’s accomplishments are, and at its best Portlandia is very good at poking holes in that ego.

***This sketch also has a nice related bit of subtext: while Armisen and Brownstein are ranting, every other person in the cafe barely takes notice. Live in Portland long enough, eventually you tune the crazies out.

At its worst, Portlandia doesn’t cross the bridge to insulting, but does churn out sketches that are just weak. In particular, I’m not convinced that the “Women & Women First” feminist bookstore and its passive-aggressive owners has anything more to it than a few clever lines (“Every time you point, I see a penis”), and yet they seemed to feel it not only deserved to be a recurring sketch but one that used up guest stars on the level of Steve Buscemi, Aubrey Plaza and Heather Graham. Episode six’s arc about Portland needing a baseball team also has some great moments starting out, but its core action feels like improvisation that gets tangled in the gears very early on. This is always going to be par for the course on a show like this (and it still has a better batting average than SNL) but it doesn’t keep the show from being dull or even bizarre.

And the bizarre feeling leads to an odd tendency about Portlandia – every so often it seems to go off its medication. As I mentioned above, one of Portland’s mottos is “Keep Portland Weird” (and after two and a half years here I’m convinced it doesn’t need the help) and the show is obviously going for a heightened reality in how seriously its characters take themselves, but every so often the show banks a very hard and strange left. The most egregious example of this is “Coffee Land” sketch with Japanese tourists obsessed with getting smaller and smaller cups of coffee, shot in that bizarre kawaii style that makes you what in blazes is going on inside Japanese TV network meetings, but even the more casual sketches seem to have instances of hot-air balloons bursting from conference rooms and cupcakes appearing out of thin air in front of crashed bicyclists. They’re still funny in their own right, but it fast breaks the tone the show’s usually so good at building.

It’s especially disappointing, because Portlandia‘s best and truest moments don’t come when it’s stretching the boundaries of reality – they come when its characters are just following those random conversations that seem to pop in Portland the minute you get two or three people sitting down. The mayor discusses his “reggae” scandal with a group of reporters (one of the show’s nods to Portland’s news that outsiders won’t get and residents will find wonderfully cutting) and it quickly turns into a discussion of bass guitars and the merits of dub-step reggae. The mayor takes a look at the lineup for the baseball team he excitedly pushed in the start of the episode, and immediately goes off on a tangent to develop the team’s mascots into a cartoon show – Brownstein excitedly pitches names and people she knows to animate it, and Armisen wearily tries to put things back on track. In Portland, a lot of ideas get thrown around on a regular basis, and of those only a small percentage tend to stick – but the wonderful thing about this city is that it never stops generating those ideas.

I mentioned at the start that Portlandia‘s already been renewed for a second season – with an order expanded from six to ten episodes – and after these first few episodes I can safely say I’m looking forward to it. It doesn’t butcher our fair city, but pokes at an ego that could stand a bit of prodding now and again, and does so in a series of sketches that are often entertaining and make its setting look like a fun place to live. And as a resident of Portland and comedy fan, that’s really all I could ask for.

Extra Credit:

  • Check out a fantastic interview with Brownstein from Willamette Week here, including her “Five Funny Things About Portland.”

About Les Chappell

The Mad Hatter of media criticism. Co-founder of This Was Television, contributor to The A.V. Club, founder of A Helpless Compiler and The Lesser of Two Equals.
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