(IFC) Portlandia has been getting great word-of-mouth. You may have heard people you know singing “The Dream of the '90s is Alive in Portland” or quoting lines like “Put a bird on it!” The show deserves the buzz it's getting, but maybe not for the reasons you'd guess. As a satire of hipster culture, it's fair-to-middling, but as a celebration of the bizarre, it's excellent.
The premise of the show is pretty unique: a series of sketches that affectionately poke fun at the city of Portland. It recalls The Kids in the Hall in both tone and structure, but while the Kids often did similar sendups of their fellow Torontonians, they weren't quite so explicit in their intent.
Here's where the divide between Portlandia's premise and its actual comedic success comes into play: although the show is ostensibly a satire of the land “where young people go to retire,” its stars – Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein – put most of their considerable comedic talents into portraying the kind of outlandish characters that could exist in any city. Portland is often little more than a backdrop or a narrative device for bringing these crazed individuals together.
True, there is a recurring sketch involving the mayor of Portland (Kyle MacLachlan, Twin Peaks) and his assistant (Sam Adams, the real-life mayor of Portland); and, yes, the show does feature endless jabs at the hoodie-wearing, fixed-gear-riding vegans of the Great Northwest; but those gentle souls live pretty much everywhere these days, and the satire seems directed at their worldview rather than at a particular geographic location.
Where the show really shines is in little touches of absurdity. For instance, there's the relationship that Brownstein has with an anonymous and ill-fated chubby man during the course of a single phone conversation. Or, how about the weirdly hypnotic gaze of Aliki (the bewitching Jason Sudeikis, SNL, 30 Rock), organic farmer and erstwhile cult leader?
There are occasions where the satire really works, such as a sketch in which musician Aimee Mann is forced to work as a maid for a couple of abusive fans because everyone in the world pirates music. It's a well-aimed shot at the thoughtlessness and selfishness of many of today's music fans, and it's a rare case where the concept takes precedence over the performances.
However, for the most part, Brownstein and Armisen don't seem that interested in the politics of their comedy; they'd rather explore the same existential inanity that's been the hallmark of modern sketch comedy – at the heart of which is the observation that humans are generally a glitchy and demented species who perform a thousand self-righteous rituals every day and who evince little-to-no long-term virtue.
Music plays a large role in Portlandia, with slyly witty songs thrown in here and there. Brownstein used to play with Sleater-Kinney and now tours with indie supergroup Wild Flag, so she knows what she's doing in that department. Armisen is no slouch either, having played drums for Trenchmouth, Les Savy Fav, and Blue Man Group.
Portlandia came out of a series of web-based sketches that the two eventually pitched as a show. We can thank Lorne Michaels – the man behind Saturday Night Live and The Kids in the Hall– for making Portlandia a televised reality. It's already been renewed for a third seaon, so we can look forward to more hilariously creepy, unhinged adventures. Like the Kids before them, Brownstein and Armisen are using their adopted hometown as a playground for larger-than-life characters that may – to some of us – feel a little too familiar.
For Fans Of: The Kids in the Hall, The Whitest Kids U'Know, The Upright Citizens Brigade, Monty Python's Flying Circus
Why We Like It: A cracked view of reality, manic sketches that never go where you're expecting, great musical numbers.