At first glance, IFC’s sketch comedy Portlandia seems like the kind of coterie television show that might only be legible to, say, former college radio DJs in their late 20s and early 30s. Created by and starring the unlikely duo of Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armisen and ex-Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein, Portlandia is constructed atop an elaborate network of allusions, winks, and nods directed at a very specific kind of post-collegiate, post-hipster, post-post-punk viewer. While its in-jokiness could easily alienate audiences from a variety of demographics, the show, which just concluded its first short season, turns this narrow focus into its greatest strength.
Portlandia is at its best working in miniature. Structured as a series of vignettes featuring an array of locavores, artisanal light-bulb makers, and avian-obsessed conceptual artists, the show is a meticulously composed depiction of an alternate-universe Portland, Oregon, where “the dream of the ’90s” is alive and kicking. In this world, the mayor is a bicycling reggae bassist (played with blank-eyed zest by the great Kyle McLachlan), farm-raised chickens are served with capsule biographies, and Aimee Mann (playing herself) picks up extra cash working as a housemaid. Just as the festival hit Tiny Furniture—Lena Dunham’s paean to being 22, degreed, and lost in Manhattan—achieved a kind of emotional transcendence through its richly detailed ethnography of the idiosyncratically privileged, Portlandia explores the sometimes painfully hilarious misadventures of characters who are earnestly attempting to transform a very familiar kind of utopian liberalism into a lived reality.
These characters and scenarios are all tenderly composed with the same attention to detail and mise-en-scène as a Wes Anderson film, and the sketches take full advantage of this depth. Take the vignette set at the Deuce Hotel—a barely veiled sendup of the über-hip Ace Hotel chain. From the DJ in the lobby, to the angular chalkboard-black furniture, to the complimentary turntables and surly employees, Armisen and Brownstein get most of their laughs from a deadpan presentation of what are, for the most part, actual features of the real Ace Hotel chain. But by the time special guests Colin Meloy (of the Decemberists), James Mercer (of the Shins), and Corin Tucker (of Sleater-Kinney) show up as hotel guests, the scene descends into a Benny Hill-esque freak-out. The joy of Portlandia comes from watching Armisen and Brownstein painstakingly assemble and then gleefully deconstruct scenes like this. There’s always something a little avant-garde about their silliness, or maybe it’s the other way around.
Indeed, the brilliance of Portlandia, and part of what I imagine will be its staying power, is that the jokes work both as insider cultural reference and rank absurdism. Viewers may find Armisen’s kamikaze bike messenger or Brownstein’s feminist bookstore owner so effectively funny either because they imagine them to be surrealist creations or because they recognize these characters as unnervingly accurate portraits of real people. The ability of these scenes to pass as both Pythonesque nonsense and minutely observed caricature is the motor force of Armisen and Brownstein’s nervy satire.
Like its alt-sketch comedy forebears (Kids in the Hall, Upright Citizens Brigade, and especially The State), Portlandia, written by Armisen and Brownstein along with Jonathan Krisel and Alison Silverman, is sometimes hit or miss. But the show is cleverly and divertingly edited—with references to the jumpy cuts advocated by Ben Stiller’s character in Reality Bites—and the endearing and energetic performance of the two leads is very often enough to rescue even the thinnest of sketch ideas. Armisen has long been an underrated workhorse on SNL, but Brownstein is the real discovery here. With a twitch of one of her numerous fake mustaches or a whispered non sequitur, she steals almost every scene she shares with her affable and hammy partner. And when she’s called on to play the straight man (literally and figuratively), Brownstein’s starry-eyed excitement forms something like the emotional center of the show.
Anchored by this shared enthusiasm, the show, to its credit, is never mean. Armisen and Brownstein satirize their subjects, but there’s always an undertone of sympathy in their portrayals. Where a show like this could easily strike a tone of aggressive exclusivity, more often than not, Portlandia welcomes viewers into its weird world. The show may not be for everyone, but it doesn’t need to be. Knowing but not pretentious, snarky but not sneering, Portlandia succeeds both as farce and as faithful representation of a population for whom the dream—of the ’90s or anything else, for that matter—is still alive.