Netflixing: Portlandia

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Can a show be funny and boring at the same time?

I’m not sure if Portlandia is the answer to that question. It has moments that make me think it falls entirely to one side or the other. Yet, if I consider my overall experience, then yeah, I kind of feel like it brings both things at once.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. There will be time for judgment later; the time for examination is now.

What is Portlandia?

The IFC channel is basically a sandbox for Saturday Night Live spinoffs. And Portlandia honors that tradition by being a comedy sketch show starring SNL alumnus Fred Armisen.

Armisen was responsible for some of the biggest laughs during his tenure at SNL, and he certainly has a knack for bringing out the ridiculous until you wet your pants with laughter. Honestly, he may have been the best choice, out of all the SNL cast members, to be spun off into his own comedic universe.

And what a universe it is. Portlandia (the title being a parody of Jean Sibelius’s symphony Finlandia) is a comedy sketch showcase, developed as a running series, whose various sketches are united by a single genre—that genre being the city of Portland, Oregon.

Portland is…a Genre?


And, if it does nothing else, the show empirically proves this idea by delivering a brand of humor that could not have come from anywhere else. Portland is weird, and its particular kind of weirdness is unique to Portland, so the show has to take place in and revolve around Portland in order to make fun of that weirdness. Hence, the reason for Portlandia‘s existence.

The Humor

The humor of Portlandia is entirely character driven, with each segment centering on a group of Portlandians living their crazy lives. Each set of characters have their own quirks, but nearly all of them are played by Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein.

Which brings us to the central point of the show.

The Characters

There are far too many to mention individually. The roster of Portlandia is meant to encompass just about every stereotype that can be associated with the city. Each is worthy of examination, but for brevity’s sake, I will only mention the most prominent ones here.

Fred and Carrie

The most important characters played by Fred Armisen and Carrie brownstein are…themselves.

Living in the same house, sleeping in the same room but not the same bed, Fred and Carrie as characters are a direct parody of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street. They go on wacky adventures together, trying to attract tourists to Portland through a number of ill-advised stunts and campaigns. There is nothing these two won’t do for love of their city.

Peter and Nance

A childless, middle-aged couple whose greatest drive in life is to make themselves more interesting, as they have nothing else to do with their lives. Attempts to have house parties or open a bed and breakfast or join a cult are made with disastrous results. And, naturally, they go to great lengths to project an air of social consciousness. They are as shallow and hypocritical as they are cuddly.

Candace and Toni

Proprietresses of the Women and Women First feminist bookstore, Candace and Toni are determined to conduct their retail business in a way that defies all aspects of the dreaded Patriarchy. Such efforts include refusing to catalog their inventory, refusing to arrange the books alphabetically, refusing to answer customer questions or help them find the books they are looking for, and taking umbrage with anything their patrons say or do.

“I’m going to need you to stop doing that,” they constantly demand, as every legitimate question or objection instantly triggers them. And while they believe themselves to be more enlightened than the masses, they are both more than a little psychotic, and will not hesitate to make the leap to violence and arson when they don’t get their way.

The Mayor

The mayor of Portland is…

Wait a minute: is that Kyle MacLachlan?

Well, whaddaya know? It’s the Kwisatz Haderach himself. So this is where Dale Cooper ended up once he passed the threshold into the spirit world. And, honestly, doesn’t it make sense that Portland Oregon is the Black Lodge? Tell me it doesn’t make perfect sense.

The mayor of Portland is a personal friend of Fred and Carrie’s. He is constantly dispatching them on missions to spread the good news that is the city of Portland. Sometimes, this is taken to literal extremes, as one episode features Fred and Carrie being sent to Seattle as missionaries to gather converts. If you haven’t guessed, the mayor of Portland hates Seattle and resents the great image and PR that it enjoys.

Now that you know all about the characters, I feel I should provide a little bit of illumination, to help you get the most out of your viewing experience.

A Word of Advice: Skip Season 1

In the first season of Portlandia, the show is still trying to discover itself. There is a lot that just doesn’t work and that may put the potential viewer off from committing to further seasons.

This is a shame because the show gets better with each successive season, and there is a lot to appreciate in the later episodes.

The one part of Season 1 that shouldn’t be missed is the opening musical number of the first episode, as it encapsulates the entire spirit of the series and there are a few throwback jokes in later seasons that reference it. After you’re done watching that song and dance segment, feel free to skip to season 2.

A Word of Advice: Don’t Binge Watch

When watching this show on IFC, I was stunned by how funny it could be. When I watched it on Netflix, I was stunned at how boring it could be.

This probably comes from the fact that Portlandia is best enjoyed in small doses. If you try to watch the entire series in one go (which I had to do because I am a Netflix critic on a schedule) then it loses a lot of its savor and gets more than a little monotonous. When adding it to your queue, be sure to add two or three other shows you can rotate between, as palette cleansers between each session of Fred Armisen’s special brand of humor.

My Judgment

Every episode of Portlandia (post season 1) has at least one laugh-out-loud moment. And some of these are truly spectacular. Perhaps no other show has so successfully managed to capture the insanity of a single culture.

That said, the show is about 10% social comedy and 90% social commentary. Parts of it made me howl with hilarity, but everything else just made me feel bad for everyone living in Portland, Oregon. I found myself wanting to give these people a hug before telling them to quit whining and get a real job.

I was bored at times, and I was entertained at times. And I sometimes wonder if basing your entire comedic genre around a single location really serves the show, or if, in the end, this premise is creatively crippling.

It’s definitely worth a watch, though. Netflix has all six current seasons (and more may yet be greenlighted). So put it in your queue. There’s a lot to enjoy here.