“Portlandia” is an Independent Film Channel (IFC) television series that debuted last January. Its second season has begun this January on IFC and the first season is now available on Netflix online. Created by Fred Armisen of Saturday Night Live (SNL) fame (he most famously portrays Barack Obama on SNL), and Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney, the “seminal female rock band” (her quotes). “Portlandia” pokes fun at Portland, Oregon. It pokes fun, mostly gently, but sometimes with a bit of a bite. Portland seems to take its ribbing good-naturedly; the real life mayor of Portland (Sam Adams) plays the harried assistant to the show’s caricature of the mayor (Kyle MacLachlan). Also, Brownstein and her band once hailed from Portland, so she should be able to help keep it real.
“Portlandia” is structured as a series of comic sketches, as found on SNL. About half of the sketches string together the story for each episode, while the others feel like extemporaneous adlibs. Of the later, some are just one offs, while others are recurring, from episode to episode. All of the sketches involve Armisen and/or Brownstein. Like your typical SNL show, some sketches work and some don’t. One of the best spoofs pokes fun at the city’s obsession with provenance. While ordering in a restaurant, Nance (Brownstein) asks about the chicken’s organic roots, “Is that USDA organic, or Oregon organic, or Portland organic?” The answer of course is, “Yes”. One of my favorite sketches involves Armisen as a Portland hipster. He portrays an aggressive bicyclist sporting a “tribal look” and loudly proclaiming “bicycle rights”. “Coffeeland” is the title for a sketch, where Armisen and Brownstein play Japanese tourist school girls in a coffee shop. One of the more uncomfortable sketches was the gender bending Cacao Couple. A quote that has been taken by critics to epitomize the show, is made early in the first episode. In this scene, LA residents, Jason (Armisen) tells Donnie (Brownstein) that Portland is “a city where young people go to retire.”
At Blueberry Hill, Dan quoted that line, contending that “Portlandia” was really making fun of hipsters and not Portland. I thought about that for a night and a day and concluded that he was right, but only half right. “Portlandia” is a spoof of hipsters. It is a spoof of Left Coast hipsters by East Coast hipsters. What makes the show resonate for me though, is that there is a little bit of “Portlandia” everywhere, even in Saint Louis. We dined, au provenance, last week, at Local Harvest. We bicycled there, sporting our own brother (and sister) from another planet version of the tribal look. This post isn’t even half long enough to get me talking about coffee. At Blueberry Hill, over Dan’s shoulder, I spied a hipster artifact. Tucked away in a corner of this bar’s cluttered décor, was a poster announcing Woodstock. For one weekend in August of ’69 this was the hippest place on earth to be. Hip is an ephemeral quality, for most of us even more so than youth, but there are some that can maintain hipness into old age. I find that having hipster children doesn’t help with my preservation of cool.
I’ve only been to Portland once. It was thirty years ago. It was on the tail end of our bicycle ride around the country, our great adventure. We left our jobs, place and possessions and headed out to bicycle across America. Our bike ride ended in Seattle, with my old boss calling me back. We threw the bikes onto the train and rode with them as far as Portland. Sam greeted us at the train station. We were all excited to see each other. She drove us up to some promontory, to show off the town, but between weather and evergreens there was not much to see. It was the first time I had been in a car in over a month. Afterwards, we all relaxed and enjoyed the Portland scene together. When we visited Powell’s, I felt like a Russian in my first supermarket. We have been friends with Sammy a long time, before and since. She is a fellow blogger, linked here, Archaeofacts, and always on this page. She’s one cool lady.