Television review: ‘Portlandia’
In “Portlandia,” a funny and charming new six-episode, single-camera sketch comedy from IFC, Fred Armisen, of “Saturday Night Live,” and Carrie Brownstein, formerly of the band Sleater-Kinney and now of Wild Flag, come together to gently lampoon life in what has repeatedly been proclaimed one of America’s, and even the world’s, most livable cities, Portland, Ore.
The series is a better-heeled, better-paced and, within the bounds of its own Portland-ish modesty, a more ambitious extension of the occasional videos that Armisen and Portland resident Brownstein have posted online over the past few years under the name ThunderAnt. If there’s an overall theme here, it’s that heaven contains its own portion of hell — that right living takes work, relaxation causes stress, and that a thin line separates responsibility and rage. (“Cars, man! Why?” fumes Armisen’s “bicycle rights” guy as he navigates the city streets.) Their Portland is a place where your chicken dinner may come with a pedigree (“His name was Colin; here are his papers”) and where your vegan pastry tastes like sand because it is made with sand.
Yet the tone remains affectionate. Armisen, who is 44, and Brownstein, who is 36, are experienced enough to regard their targets with a little dispassion, yet not so remote as to grow cynical about them.
It all begins with Fred (as “Jason from L.A.”) coming to tell Brownstein, as if he’s just back from Narnia, that he’s seen a place where “the dream of the ‘90s is alive.”
“Remember when people were content to be unambitious, sleep to 11, hang out with their friends?” he reminds her. When they just wanted to form bands, he asks, or go to clown school?
“I gave up clowning years ago,” Brownstein says.
“Well, in Portland, you don’t have to.” It is, he says, “a city where young people go to retire.”
There is a long tradition of musical comedians and comedic musicians, but over the past 15 years or so, common cause has been made increasingly between them. Yo La Tengo regularly shares the stage with stand-up comics (Jim Gaffigan and Kristen Schaal, recently). Aimee Mann, who’ll appear in an upcoming episode of “Portlandia,” has used professional comedians to deliver her onstage patter. Patton Oswalt, Eugene Mirman and Flight of the Conchords release records on Sub Pop, home of the Shins and Nirvana. David Cross has appeared in videos for the Strokes and Superchunk (whose drummer, Jon Wurster, also does comedy). And Armisen himself drummed for the Chicago-based punk band Trenchmouth (and was married for several years to Sally Timms from the Mekons, which is its own kind of heavy, underground cred).
The leads have a lovely, light way with one another — this is not the comedic equivalent of Sleater-Kinney’s riot grrrl rock — and as an actress, Brownstein is ... a really good actress. They easily inhabit a variety of characters: a couple experimenting sexually (each player takes the opposite gender), tournament hide-and-seek players, craft mavens who insist that the way to improve any object is to “put a bird on it.” In the show’s best bit, a recurring holdover from ThunderAnt, they play the co-proprietresses of a feminist bookstore. Armisen’s question, “That’s a top-selling author — do we want that in here?” and his assurance to a customer (Aubrey Plaza from “Parks & Recreation”) that “We could order that for you, it’ll take a year to get here,” sum up their passive-aggressive approach to business.
As Fred and Carrie, they meet the mayor, played by Kyle MacLachlan — actual Portland Mayor Sam Adams plays his assistant — who displays an award for “best official Website for cities with populations under 700,000 in the Pacific Northwest area,” a certificate he had printed himself, and sets them to write the town theme song. (“Portland Community College/They sent me a reminder,” Fred suggests. “Community garden workshop/Teach me to rake and hoe-oh-oh,” Carrie sings.)
“Just one thing,” MacLachlan warns. “Don’t make it sound like it’s coming from Seattle. Go, Portland!”
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