Place and Satire in ‘Portlandia’

When certain pop-culture phenomena saturate a society, part of the drawback is that sometimes, all the people, places or events depicted in that phenomena becomes forever enmeshed with whatever show, song, movie or book is associated with it. This is particularly true of comedy, when oftentimes the joke of a thing becomes more popular than the thing itself. It’s difficult these days to hear the words “Celebrity Jeopardy” and not immediately think of Darryl Hannah’s Sean Connery guffawing relentlessly at Will Ferrell’s hapless Alex Trebek on Saturday Night Live or, in a more personal example, to tell anyone on the East Coast that you are from Springfield, Illinois without being asked if that’s where the Simpsons are from. To which I usually reply: “Yes. Also, Abraham Lincoln.”

The fact that a cartoon family is more easily correlated with my hometown than America’s greatest president (bias easily acknowledged here) is just one example of how this peculiar rule applies specifically to places. I’m sure that Baltimore doesn’t always look like the drug-addled streets depicted in The Wire, but whenever I discuss Baltimore with anyone who has ever lived there, the show is sure to come up. Part of this is because I’m interested in how realistically television and movies portray places, and part of is it because my conversational abilities beyond television and movies is pretty narrow. I pity the people these days that cross my path and tell me they are from Portland, because it is practically guaranteed that the next thing out of my mouth will somehow involve Portlandia.

Portlandia is a sketch comedy show on the Independent Film Channel created and written by Fred Armisen, a long-running SNL cast member; Carrie Brownstein, former guitarist and vocalist for the all-female indie rock band Sleater-Kinney (founded in Portland in 1994); and Jonathan Krisel, an NYU alum known for directing SNL digital shorts and producing Tom Goes to the Mayor on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. Armisen and Brownstein are the show’s two main actors, portraying a variety of characters that range anywhere along the sliding scale from uptight yuppie to grunge hippie. Although neither one are native Oregonians (Brownstein is from Seattle, Armisen was born in Mississippi and raised on Long Island), the major draw of setting an entire comedy show in Portland without worry of running out of material was likely the city’s well-known oddity (local color includes the Voodoo Doughnut shop, a Vegan strip club, and something called “yarn bombing” – look it up). Most of the show’s satire focuses on the Northwest Coasts’ particular brand of liberal elitism, perhaps best captured in two of Portlandia’s most popular characters – Toni and Candace, the passive-aggressive owners of feminist bookstore Women and Women First (“Every time you point, I see a penis.”)

The genius behind Portlandia is its gentle lampooning of a very specific population that still manages to be accessible to those who live outside the limits of the Portland metropolitan area. The sketches in Portlandia might be set in Portland, but most of them could just as well be inserted into any US geographical region. That’s because the situations they choose to depict are recognizable to all.

Nearly everyone is acquainted with the ridiculousness of sitting through an endless cell-phone contract pitch (“There’s also Simply Everything Plus… simply everything, plus texting”), or being nearly run-over by a crazed cyclist (“Pull your mirrors in!”), or the anxiety of dropping a brand-new iPhone you’ve been waiting months for (okay, that one’s probably not applicable to Android users). Still, there are times when you feel you aren’t completely in on the joke if you don’t live in Portland. I had to look up if “Trek in the Park” from Season Two was a real thing or another subtle jab at Portland’s “weirdness” – turns out it’s a real thing.

The third season, their best yet, manages to somehow broaden the scope of its humor while simultaneously narrowing the precision of its Portland-specific sensibility. In this season, two other Portlandia character favorites, Iris and Spike, launch a campaign to recapture MTV from tweens and their awful reality shows, a comedian makes his living by coming up exclusively with witty replies to Evite invitations, and the Portland Nerd Council addresses the overuse of the “nerd” qualifier in pop culture today (“A sexy girl who went and saw a second-week screening of The Avengers is not a nerd. A real nerd is ashamed to be called a nerd.”)

You don’t have to live in Portland to get why someone would be frustrated that a channel that still calls itself “Music Television” now mostly only contains music on show intros. But at the same time, there are sketches in which the mayor (the excellent Kyle MacLachlan) sends Carrie and Fred (playing themselves) to Seattle to recruit more people to move to Portland, and a new temporary mayor (a great cameo for those who know their 90’s TV history) attempts to turn Portland into a “real” city, with less bike lanes, no wi-fi, and more “pee-smell.” These sketches are probably just a little bit funnier if you know what they’re talking about, as I can’t imagine any major U.S. city not having enough of a pee-smell to it already. Still, these things never pull you out of the comedy; if anything, they just make you want to move to Portland.

The best thing about Portlandia is that it is a sketch television show that knows it is on television and uses the medium to great effect. A lot of the humor results from the fast-paced and frantic editing that accompanies many of the sketches, like the hilarious “Put a Bird on It!” in season one. In season three, the blatant use of cartoonish sound effects is ramped way up, lending the show a feeling of zaniness that only makes it funnier. Season Three is also by far the tightest season yet. In the past, loose narrative arcs have tied the episodes together, but this is the first season that actually builds on itself and requires you to watch the episodes in order to ensure you’re not missing out on anything. It’s also the first season that ties back heavily to previous seasons, which means if you haven’t seen some of their other sketches, you won’t get some of it.

The two-disc DVD set contains two short deleted scenes, but the real treat here is the inclusion of eight “Portland Tours” webisodes with Kumail Nanijani, who makes several cameo appearances on the show. Nanijani tours several Portland hotspots which are either featured on the show or have inspired characters from it. Nanijani is a gifted natural comedian, and the webisodes are worth checking out, feeling more like Daily Show segments than actual interviews.

Portlandia has already been renewed for two more seasons, so we’re sure to see some great comedy in the near future. I, for one, hope that they keep coming up with inspiration for a long time. And who knows, maybe when they do exhaust Portland’s options, they’ll start looking for other places to make fun of. I know a little town in Illinois that would appreciate being known for something other than Abraham Lincoln and The Simpson’s.

RATING 7 / 10
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