As 2011 comes to a close a handful of new television series came and went. Quite literally too, in the case of The Playboy Club. One show that stood out with only a few episodes was IFC’s Portlandia, starring Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein.
I happened to come across the show completely by accident. I was just surfing the channels when I saw a preview for the premiere. I thought it was entertaining enough and decided to stick around for a half hour. And I’m glad I did.
The gut-busting pilot set the distinct tone for the series and was full of absurd humor unique to SNL vet Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein. In a similar manner to Parks & Recreation, if you’ve surfed the internet enough you’ll be familiar with the humor, which plays up more of outrageous, impossible situations being played matter-of-factly. The physical comedy is excellent (check out the opening to “Mayor Is Missing”) but takes a backseat to the one-liners or the circumstances that lead to it, but I think that reflects the overall sense-of-humor in 2011. It’s not going to give you a pie in the face or tell you a bunch of dirty words. Instead, it gives you a flannel shirt and an organic meal.
Something about this show just works. I think it’s the talent of the leading performers that makes it work. I cannot imagine anyone else capable of carrying this kind of absurd series.
I have never been to Portland, Oregon. So when I say I don’t know what to make of the show’s setting, please be gentle when you club me. I approach the city in one of many different angles: The type of people Fred and Carrie parody/perform in tribute to are found in almost any major city, so the choice of Portland is perhaps an ironic statement. Everyone does New York and LA, we’re Portland. Or, Portland is populated the most by these 21st century goal-less young adults. Or Portland just sucks. I really don’t know, I’ve never been! I’d like to. Maybe it would have helped to have been sunny when “Dream of the 90’s” was filmed, I don’t know.
Regardless of how you interpret the city, Portland is a character. The people who walk these streets are a special bunch, according to this show. When the mayor’s office is a sight to parody the nuisance and over-complicated convergence of technology, you know that Portland is a special place; but it’s up to you to figure out what that special means.
Fun fact: Portland is the greenest city in the United States.
The show runs on your standard 22-minutes and functions with vignette storytelling, often having only one major “plot” being the thread that holds everything together. Fred and Carrie take on different personas that send-up all kinds of “duos” only someone willing enough to try to make up — a working-class, childless couple that seeks sexual adventure, douchebag indie filmmakers, J-pop schoolgirl tourists, vegan hippies in a cult, feminist bookstore owners — I never would have thought of these.
Yesterday I was surfing Netflix when I found the show on the “New Releases” category. After seeing the pilot way back in January I promised I’d stick to watching the show, but in a weird turn of events I forgot all about it. Really, I didn’t remember it at all. Checking IFC on Demand completely escaped me. So imagine my surprise when I saw the entire first season available right in front of me. I sped through the entire series in one day, and laughing all the way. My day was gone.
The show is also marked by some awesome cameos. You get Steve Buschemi and Jason Sudeikis right in the pilot episode, but one stand out in my opinion were members of The Decemberists (Portland natives) in the episode “Blunderbuss.” I love The Decemberists but I never thought they could do comedy. Jenny Conlee gets her own little arc and it’s a treat.
Portlandia is an outrageous, funny little show that demonstrates the power of low-budget filmmaking. You can clearly see where the show cut corners, but in my opinion that just adds to the charm.
Because it’s the elephant in the room: Where I’m at in the show, I have not heard the word “hipster” and I’m completely okay with that. I don’t need labels to identify what I’m watching. Hell, I don’t even think you can describe the humor, settings, or comedy as “hipster.” The comedy, to me, perfectly encompasses what is funny for many in 2011, a standard set by, in my opinion, Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin. No longer are frat boys and horny college chicks a source of humor, it’s absurd, childish adults, either aimless or completely focused they lose sight of everything else that sets what is funny, and I predict it will be in the coming new year.
Best way the show subverts this “hippie” expectation? A small exchange between one of Armisen’s characters and an elderly woman.
“We’re not hippies at all. We like to think of ourselves as more alternative.”
I am in no way paid by IFC or anyone affiliated with the program, so when I say the show is available on Netflix and skits are on the IFC YouTube page, take it from a friend and not a paid spokesman: Watch. It’s funny.