I recently watched the entire first season of Portlandia on Netflix streaming. Prior to this, I had never heard of the show. It began last year on IFC (Independent Film Channel), which, along with the Sundance Channel, is one of the few cable channels that provides alternatives to the generic Hollywood blockbusters that dominate most of the movie stations. Unfortunately (or maybe not, for the most part), I only have basic cable so I’ve missed out on the latest IFC offerings.
I immediately found Portlandia to be a funny, refreshing and original series that is way more inspired than the typically bland sketch comedy you’ll find on network shows like Saturday Night Live (even though co-star Fred Armisen is a SNL cast member -but he’s one of the writers and producers of Portlandia).
While this show is, on the surface, a satirical look at a certain subculture of Portland, it’s really a lot more than that. For one thing, the type of people it mocks are certainly found in many other places. Brooklynites have recognized some of the hipster stereotypes, and, in true postmodern form, a parody of this parody called Brokelandia has already appeared on the internet. You’ll also find the type of slackers, bobos, the tediously politically correct and militant vegetarians in towns like Santa Cruz, Boulder and parts of the Hudson Valley region of New York (where I currently reside), such as Woodstock and New Paltz.
Most of the skits feature co-creators Fred Armisten and Carrie Brownstein, who are adept at playing everything from obnoxious yuppies to hardcore feminists. There are also notable guest stars. In one episode, indie film favorite Steve Buscemi wanders into a feminist bookstore staffed by Carrie and Fred (in drag), who refuse to let him use the bathroom until he buys something.
In another great skit, singer Aimee Mann appears as a housecleaner being harassed by the two co-stars, who alternately fawn over her and accuse her of misdeeds such as stealing. What I appreciate about the acting and writing of such skits is that they contain equal parts truth and over-the-top parody. In fact, I can’t recall more sharply written sketch comedy since the Tracy Ullman show (from whence the Simpsons originated) back in the 90s. She also had a knack for capturing the inflections of the tediously hip bourgeoisie.
Aside from yuppies/bobos and political activists, the series also pokes fun at the chronically unambitious and underemployed. As one character says in the very first episode, “Portland is where young people come to retire.”
Portlandia does not exactly portray a realistic cross section of Portland, or any other place, nor does it try to. I haven’t spent much time in Portland, but it’s safe to assume that it’s inhabited by regular working folks, conservative churchgoers and even some rednecks along with the bobos, slackers and hipsters portrayed in the show. That’s okay, though, as the point is to hone in on a particular set of stereotypes.
Although Portlandia is satire that has some bite, it’s unlikely to offend any of the city’s denizens, except perhaps those that are truly humor challenged. I can confess that before watching this series Portland was fairly high up on my list of places I’d consider moving to, and the show certainly hasn’t changed my mind about this. I can only hope that it doesn’t make the place so hip that it drives rents and real estate values through the roof!