US show takes affectionate aim at alt.culture…
Portlandia takes place in a version of the Nineties where the Bush administration never happened, where vegan bakeries, feminist bookstores and artisan lightbulb companies thrive and where, according to the show’s anthem “Dream Of The 90s”, all the hot girls wear glasses, people aspire to attend clown school and the preferred mode of transport is the unicycle.
Portlandia – which debuted on American television’s Independent Film Channel in January, 2011 and is now on its third series – is the creation of former Saturday Night Live cast member Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, the guitarist/vocalist with Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag. An improvised sketch-based comedy, Portlandia is a satire on the hyper-local alternative culture that began in the Nineties as a response to globalization and which has now become as homogenous as the mainstream itself. Although notionally set in Portland, Oregon, Portlandia is familiar to anyone who’s ever been to Broadway Market, Brighton or Williamsburg: hipster enclaves comprising militant cyclists, urban hairdressers and microbreweries, where a café is not simply a café but also an interactive art installation and Scandinavian deli.
In a Portlandia restaurant, a couple require detailed assurances about the provenance of the menu’s “heritage breed, woodland raised chicken”. A couple set free a pet dog that’s been tied to a chair leg outside a restaurant – “Who puts their dog on a pole like a stripper?” – and where the mayor also plays bass in a dub reggae band called King Desmond And The Accelerators.
Although many of Armisen and Brownstein’s characters reflect the self-regarding culture of hipster one-up-manship – my vintage artisan coffee roaster is more vintage and artisan than yours – it never feels like Portlandia is entirely mocking its subject. Perhaps its because Brownstein was herself part of the Nineties’ alt.culture in her Sleater-Kinney days that the show has good insider observation but doesn’t feels as disdainful of its subject as Nathan Barley, another hipster satire. In spirit, Portlandia reminds me of The Dirty Garage – a brilliant parody trailer of mumblecore films that while accurate was never snide.
Amisen and Brownstein play most of the characters themselves, with occasional guests – Kyle MacLachlan has a recurring spot as the mayor, while elsewhere in the 16 episodes that comprise the show’s first two seasons you’ll spot Gus Van Sant, Steve Buscemi, Eddie Vedder, Robin Pecknold, Joanna Newsom and Johnny Marr. But beyond celebrity cameos, at the core of Portlandia is the acknowledgement that the Nineties alternative dream failed. It’s become as commodified and predictable as the culture it sought to escape from. It’s all gone straight to hell in a vintage artisan handcart.
EXTRAS: Audio commentaries, bloopers, extended and deleted scenes, videos and featurettes. 7/10