WE'RE A CITY OF OBSSESSIVES. Portland is just as obsessed with music, bikes, politics, pugs, and fashion, as it is with hating music, bikes, politics, pugs, and fashion. So it's little wonder that Portlandia—Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney, Wild Flag) and Fred Armisen's (Saturday Night Live) new sketch comedy show on IFC—feels in some ways right at home: The show is basically their obsessive laundry list of Portland's most annoying annoyances.
In Portlandia, Brownstein and Armisen play a wide array of deeply irritating Portland caricatures: the wildly unhelpful owners of a feminist bookstore; obsessive locavores who demand to visit the farm that raised the chicken they're about to eat; a bicyclist who not only owns the road, but seemingly the universe; and teammates on an all-adult hide 'n' seek team (a vicious, but funny nod to Portland's grownup kickball leagues).
But as a television comedy, does Portlandia work? Welllllll... yes, sorta, and no. Let's put it this way: If you're a person who feels disenfranchised from Portland's creative class—like the commenters on Oregon Live who despise everything that deviates from the social norm in Troutdale—you'll laugh your ass off. (Side note: The Republican uncle of a Mercury staffer LOVED IT.) Conversely, if you're one of the people or classes being lampooned by the show, you'll probably, definitely hate it. And if you fall somewhere in-between these two groups—which most of us do—you're in the "sorta" class: You'll be sorta amused, while sorta wondering how Team Brownstein intends on extending this joke for its entire six-episode run.
The stuff that works, works well: Fred Armisen is a gifted comedian and SNL workhorse who can play the shit out of any sketch regardless of its quality. Whether he's a thick bespectacled nerd, an aggro cyclist, or a be-hoodied hipster, he's always swinging for the fence, thereby making even the most half-baked scene somewhat entertaining. As for non-actor Carrie Brownstein, she has an amusing deadpan demeanor that may not be able to keep up with Armisen, but certainly doesn't slow him down.
While occasionally distracting, the tons of fun guest appearances from local celebs (including a legitimately hilarious Sam Adams), Hollywood actors (Steve Buscemi, Kyle MacLachlan), and Portland landmarks (you know, that place over there next to that thing) are consistently welcome. Additional plusses: scenes that rarely overstay their welcome (Hello, every SNL sketch ever produced), absolutely gorgeous cinematography, and occasional flashes of top-notch writing (when the sketches veer away from crass characterization and into the absurd).
As for what doesn't work: There's the whole "concept" thingy. Portlandia makes a far better web series, and for proof, see the tiny snippets distributed online that are already generating healthy noise. But forced into the 30-minute confines of broadcast television, the show's concept ("Let's laugh at the annoyingly annoying people of Portland!") is waaaay too narrow, and comes off as a sketch comedy ripoff of the website Look at This Fucking Hipster. In the two episodes I've seen, Portlandia contains basically one joke that's repeated ad infinitum, set in an extremely particular place and time, that may only appeal to a small segment of the country—many of whom might not even get it.
And I'm getting nitpicky here, but for me there's a nagging (and yes, ANNOYING) Andy Rooneyesque anti-creative class subtext running through Portlandia—which is especially ironic since the show pooh-poohs the youth culture that so generously provided Brownstein and Armisen with their initial rise to popularity. (Some "thank you" note, huh?)
But above and beyond all that, it's the exclusion of emotionally honest characters that keeps Portlandia from being its best. Example: In the "Adult Hide 'n' Seek" sketch set in a library, Armisen's über-nerd character is hiding out by an older woman who's trying to read her book in peace. When he answers "no" to the question, "Do you have a girlfriend?," she pricelessly rolls her eyes and responds, "Why am I not surprised?" This is the biggest belly laugh in episode one—and for very good reason. She's the one believable character in a half hour of unbelievable characterizations.
Comedy, at its best, cuts to the truth in any given situation. And while it may be true there are annoying bikers, annoying nerds, annoying feminists, and annoying hipsters in Portland (Jeez, Carrie! Is there anything that doesn't annoy you?)—Portlandia would be far more successful by striking a balance between the "annoying" and the "real."
All that being said, for Portlanders Portlandia is certainly worth watching, discussing, laughing about, and critiquing—because as a city, and considering everything we've accomplished here... we're worth it, goddammit. (Sorry, Oregon Live commenters, but as you may have noticed, there's not a show named Troutdalia.)