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September 2, 2015

TV 101: It's All Good in 'Portlandia'

by Dr. Ryan Vaughan, PhD (no, seriously), posted Feb 23rd 2011 2:00PM
PortlandiaEverybody has that someone in his life who is principled almost to a fault.

This person only buys clothes from the Salvation Army (and not for the ironic reasons I bought gas station attendant shirts with the name "Roy" on them in the mid-'90s). He will take a swing at you if you dare offer him something that isn't organic, and he always talks about how he liked something before it sold out and went corporate, like the 1980s NBA, hip-hop or coffee.

He's the vintage-collecting, Whole Foods–shopping, hybrid-driving documentary filmmaker who reads McSweeney's and formulates conspiracy theories about Disney while jarring his homemade pickles.

IFC's 'Portlandia' is a little show made for and by hipsters that simultaneously skewers and reveres them and their pious notions of 20-something cool.

'Portlandia' is the mutant brain child of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, two performers long entrenched in the very world they seek to dismantle within the show -- Armisen via the ever hip and ironic realm of 'Saturday Night Live' and Brownstein via the indie feminist (double whammy) rock scene legends, Sleater-Kinney.

They each play multiple roles that represent the extremes of idealism and cool born out of the Gen-X '90s, then adapted conveniently to fit into a post-Bush culture that's become a perfect breeding ground for the kind of pseudo-intellectual apathy that makes this country No. 1 in the world in whining and complaining.

IFC has been a busy little network of late, and when you take a look at their ever-growing stable of good shows that were canceled too soon, it's easy to see the kind of niche they're looking to carve. The network is currently providing sanctuary for some of the most misunderstood and abruptly aborted shows in recent memory, including 'Arrested Development,' 'Freaks and Geeks,' 'Greg the Bunny,' 'Mr. Show,' 'The Ben Stiller Show' and 'Undeclared.' That's not to mention their new original programming like 'The Increasingly Poor Decision of Todd Margaret' and 'Onion News Network.'

This is one of the things that makes 'Portlandia' so interesting. That IFC, whose slogan of "Always on. Slightly off" could very easily be a sticker on guitar cases and MacBooks all over the country, would create a series that essentially mocks the very demographic it's aiming for (the shows listed above read like every hipster's Netflix queue) is both gutsy and ambitious. 'Portlandia' is extremely unapologetic as it takes a "you make fun of your friends more than anyone else" approach, which the audience is inherently aware enough to take in stride.

Primarily, the show delves into the notion of being "cool," and how seemingly arbitrary that term can be. Who decides what's cool, and who decides when that cool thing ceases to be cool, crossing over into lame and often times, conformist? When status and coolness becomes a contest, nobody wins.

The Dave Matthews Band comes to mind as an example. In 1994, my "always telling me about this new cool band" friend came to me with some bootleg tapes. He said, "Vaughan, you have to hear this band. They're crazy good: acoustic guitar, fiddle, and horns. They're called The Dave Matthews Band." I listened to the tapes, and they were indeed "crazy good," and me and my circle of friends thought we'd found this little treasure that no one else knew about.

Within a year and a half of that moment and an unhealthy amount of MTV exposure, we all wanted to punch Dave Matthews in the sack, because he took what was "our thing" and turned around and gave it to everyone wearing a white South Carolina Cocks hat backwards.

I decided that DMB was no longer cool, while millions of other people decided he was. The issue then shifts to one of influence. Was I hating because everyone else was liking? Was everyone liking because everyone else was liking? Neither is a healthy option because both decisions are made as a result of other people thinking for us.

Which is worse: spending an hour every morning deciding which ironic T-shirt/Chuck Taylor combo you're going to wear, or going to Abercrombie and buying the outfit off the disturbingly fit mannequin? At first glance the Abercrombie guy is the "problem," until you realize that conforming to non-conformity is just another, arguably more devious form of conformity.

We can't survive on principle alone, and 'Portlandia' seems to be trying to point that out, not just to the uber-jaded, irony-drenched slacker, but to anyone who might be posturing based on a particularly moving episode of 'Oprah' or issue of Us Weekly. Yes, it's great to have values and beliefs -- just be sure you know why you hold those values and beliefs before you go about holding the rest of the world up to your standards.

Principles are only as strong and meaningful as our understanding of them. In other words, taking up a cause just to impress someone, or to look good on a resume, or because you heard Justin Timberlake is on board, is detrimental to that cause.

The misguided allegiance to causes actually brings the community of Portlandia to a grinding halt. Virtually all of the characters are so lost in their beliefs and what those beliefs say about them that it becomes impossible to get even the most mundane things accomplished: ordering food, shopping, buying a book, etc. There's such a thing as being too vigilant and Armisen and Brownstein are trying to find that line.

The truth is you don't have to live in Brooklyn and own a unicycle to be this kind of person. We are all guilty of the hipster mentality from time to time: reading things just to say we read them, rather than to get something out of them; saying 'Napoleon Dynamite' was brilliant and quickly changing the subject if someone asks why; or even buying food just because it says "organic" on it. 'Portlandia' holds a mirror up to its audience, and while it may not be trying to change anyone's beliefs, it's definitely interested in getting us to think about them a little more.

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

Dr. Vaughan teaches English/media/humor courses at Binghamton University in upstate New York, and he's the real deal. You can also check out his blog or find him on Facebook.

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I love "Portlandia". Makes me want to retire young and live among the hipster elite.

February 23 2011 at 9:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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