If you were born early enough to be aware of pop culture in the early 90s, you know the impact of the Pacific Northwest had on that time. The music. The clothes. The attitude. But like all pop culture eras, it’s time passed and was replaced by the next wave of whatever. It was pretty much a cultural void between the end of Grunge and Psy.
But, as they say, the dream of the 90s is alive…in Portland.
This is the core of the satirical, surrealist sketch comedy show Portlandia. It’s the brainchild of Jonathan Krisel, former head writer and executive producer on The Colbert Report, Fred Armisen of Saturday Night Live fame, and Carrie Brownstein, former singer/guitarist of Sleater-Kinney and now Wild Flag. Armisen and Brownstein play the leads in each sketch and it’s produced by Lorne Michaels, the man responsible for SNL, The Kids in the Hall, 30 Rock, and Late Night with Conan O’Brien/Jimmy Fallon.
At its core, Portlandia is a satirical but warm love note to the cultural movement that sprang from the fertile soil of Portland and Seattle, as well as how it still thrives in Portland in some aspects. Innovative artists, writers, musicians, chefs and more still call the Pacific Northwest home.
And if you’re someone who considers themselves part of that ilk, then Portland still calls to your soul.
Portlandia is brilliantly funny in its skewering of the contemporary hipsterness that grew out of the grunge ethos, keeping in mind that hipster is not a derogatory concept in this context. It’s a source of affectionate humour for the show’s creators.
The first episode opens with Armisen’s character returning to Los Angeles from a trip to Portland, relating the nostalgic joy he’s found there to Brownstein through a musical number. This scene effectively lays out the concepts that drive the show, and ideas they keep coming back to over and over again.
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As with most sketch comedy shows, guest stars add a lot to the series. Season one brought the likes of Selma Blair, Steve Buscemi, Heather Graham, Aubrey Plaza, Gus Van Sant and Jason Sudeikis to the show. As great as each performance is, Kyle MacLachlan steals every scene he’s in as Portland’s offbeat, Seattle-hating, bass-playing mayor. And, as an extra twist, one of his assistants is played by real-life Portland mayor Sam Adams.
Normally when writing about a TV series, I would take this opportunity to point out four or five outstanding episodes. That would be kind of pointless in this case. Portlandia is in the midst of season three on IFC but Netflix currently has only season one available for streaming, which consists of six episodes in total. But they are all outstanding episodes. One of the best features guest appearances by Aimee Mann and Sarah McLachlan.
The Emmy and Peabody-winning show is not for everyone. If you get the overarching joke they are going for in this series, you will love it. If not…well, Netflix has more than a few other choices for you.
All I know is that watching Portlandia does double duty by simultaneously making me laugh and making me want to move to Portland.
Ian Goodwillie is a columnist for the Spectator Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at@ThePrairieGeek and on Tumblr at iangoodwillie.tumblr.com.
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