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October 2, 2014

'Portlandia' Series Premiere Recap

by Mike Moody, posted Jan 23rd 2011 12:00PM
portlandia['Portlandia' - 'Farm']

I once drove over a few inches of crosswalk space in Austin, Texas. In protest of this heinous act, a snooty pedestrian shook his fist at me and shot me a nasty look -- the kind of look someone might give you if you had just slayed a beautiful, defenseless unicorn in front of them -- and yelled, "Hell-O! CROSSWALK!"

I'm sure something similar happened to Fred Armisen, probably more than once, in the great city of Portland, Ore. But Armisen's "crime" probably involved driving too close to an angry urban cyclist's precious bike lane ("One f***ing speed!") or snacking on a Quarter Pounder with cheese in view of a vocal vegan café patron. That could explain why the 'SNL' vet is devoting most of his free time these days to skewering the Pacific Northwest city's counterculture in IFC's 'Portlandia.'

But most of the comedy in Armisen's new sketch show doesn't come from an angry place. He and co-star/co-writer Carrie Brownstein, of the indie rock band Sleater-Kinney, obviously share a great affection for Portland. I'm sure they really do love all of the quirky, left-of-center folks that haunt the city's feminist bookstores, public libraries and ... puzzle shops, as they've said in countless interviews.

The jokes and characters of 'Portlandia' were born from keen observation. Armisen and Brownstein's characters, based on the city's more mockable denizens, have such an authentic ring to them that it's easy to believe that the comedians are merely re-creating the insanity that surrounds them every day in real life.

But, none of that really matters much. What really matters is whether or not the show is funny. Thankfully, it is. The series premiere of 'Portlandia' was easily one of the funniest half-hours of TV I've seen so far this year. It was breezy, charming, weird and scruffy in all the right spots. The show fits in perfectly with IFC's slate of 'Larry Sanders Show,' 'Ben Stiller Show,' and 'Mr. Show' reruns.

The premiere's opening sketch, 'Portland Dream of the '90s,' was probably my favorite of the night. It set things up so perfectly with its mix of sarcasm and affection for the city's counterculture community and, perhaps, those who sing Portland's praises as a magical wonderland where "the tattoo ink never runs dry" and "the Bush administration never happened."

It's hard to pick a favorite line or lyric from 'Dream of the '90s,' but I'll give it a shot, just for you ... "Portland is a city where young people go to retire" was a standout, as was "In Portland you can go to a record store and sell your CDs!" and "All the hot girls wear glasses, yeah." Why not watch it again and pick your favorite:



The shorter sketches – Armisen getting caught in an insane technology loop, Steve Buscemi having a funny back-and-forth with the clueless owners of a feminist book shop, and an adult hide-and-seek league's championship game – acted as buffers for the main storyline: an absurd tale featuring an organic food-obsessed couple.

The main story was a little slow and subtle, but the laughs came early with Armisen and Brownstein's passive-aggressive granola-crunchers pumping a waitress for info about the chicken they were about to order. "This is local?" Armisen mumbled, twice.

"The chicken is a Heritage Breed, woodland-raised chicken that's been fed a diet of sheep's milk, soy and hazelnuts," said the waitress, hoping to seal the deal. But that only opened the floodgates to more questions ("Oregon organic, or Portland organic?") and the couple eventually opted to visit the farm where the chicken, named Colin, was raised.

Enter Armisen's fellow 'SNL' cast member Jason Sudeikis, sporting an eerie smile and a fluffy Edward Cullen 'do. Sudeikis' hilarious, grabby cult leader figure held the couple in some kind of hippie love trance and ended up stealing the final bit of the sketch.

Sudeikis was great, but this is Armisen and Brownstein's show all the way. I've never questioned Armisen's comedy chops. I've been following his career since his cameo in the 2002 Wilco documentary 'I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.' He has a gift for improvisation, creating kooky characters and weaving funny social commentary into his work, and all of that is put to great use in 'Portlandia.' The revelation here is Brownstein. She's a natural at improv comedy, and she has a great screen presence. I'm sure this won't be her last small screen venture.

'Portlandia' certainly isn't for everyone, but it should please most IFC viewers, even if the show is, at times, laughing more at them than they're laughing at it.

Quotes/Other thoughts:

- "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention."

- "One vegan bacon cheeseburger ..."

- "We're not hippies at all. We like to think of ourselves as more alternative."

- "Are you the guy from Ziggy hide-dust and the Hiders from Mars?"

- "You're being a dumb bitch."

- 'Portlandia' just got started, but, sadly, the season is almost over. We only have five more episodes to look forward to this season. If you liked this premiere, you should check out Armisen and Brownstein's ThunderAnt sketch work.

'Portlandia' airs Fridays at 10:30PM on IFC.

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Peter Shen

I'm not a big fan of Fred Armisen but I like him here.

April 11 2011 at 8:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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