Portlandia (2011-), for those of you unfortunate enough to be a day more ignorant than me, is a sketch comedy show set in Portland about Portland. Portlandia is in the vein of Little Britain (2003) and Kroll Show (2013) where there’s a universe of regular characters and couples (Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein) that can, sometimes, interact with the other characters and couples. This stretches the definition of “sketch comedy” to some degree, but that’s not really a constructive semantic discussion. The only important questions are ‘Is it funny?’ and ‘Is it funny?’ The answer is often yes to the first question and sometimes no to the second question.
Unlike Little Britain and very much like Kroll Show, the universe of issues and comedy subjects are quite similar to one another. In Kroll Show the sketches are basically about reality television and how dumb it is. But Nick Kroll also provides rather distinct characters that are very silly and funny through the medium of a fake reality program. Little Britain on the other hand is two guys in wigs with silly voices being basically the same kind of stupid most of the time in rather dissimilar scenarios. Portlandia creates a hybrid whereby they’re mostly the same kind of benign granola hippy in various states of neatness. But that works for Portlandia because it is a tightly-knit universe that acts more like a disparate sitcom than the set-it-up, knock-it-down sketch show. And it’s shot like a single camera sitcom. Very well shot, in fact, with some of the better production values that I’ve seen on a half-hour comedy program.
So how is it sometimes not so funny? There’s a period of assimilation required to get yourself into Portland and finding their antics humorous. Some of it will instantly resonate and the humor will come through. Other sketches are too simple or odd to be funny. Too odd to be funny sounds impossible, but think of that sentence, just reading that sentence, like it was supposed to be a joke. Right? The oddness is the normality of it. A pedicab (bike cab) ‘driver’ roams the streets of Portland looking for fares and gets none until the end of the sketch (because even after a full minute of not getting fares, this thing has to end), he gets a super heavy lady as a fare. Around Episode 4, either they found their stride or I had assimilated to the Borg, because that’s when I became a fan. The Roseanne Barr thing never did it for me, but so much else did that I can really recommend the show. Look for Kyle MacLachlan (regular David Lynch star) as the Mayor.
The expectation for Portlandia was that it would poke fun at the hippies and hipsters. [Hey, I just got that.] It’s a very gentle poke. More than likely, those who resemble the ‘satired’ subjects of Portlandia will find it charming and reinforcing to their values. “Yeah, I struggle with eating pasta too!” This isn’t the kind of satire that deflates the windbags and engages in the kind of jujitsu dialectical whatever in the way that vicious satire operates. Thus, Portlandia is more Jerry Seinfeld than Jon Stewart. If you really want to watch the hipsters really get what’s coming to them, then you’re either going to have to look elsewhere or do an enormous amount of projecting. Because, frankly, I think they like them.
One final comment. Dude, come on, cardboard and sleeves? Man, I hate that. I know that plastic is ruining the environment, but can we please all get behind jewel cases of some efficient size? Aren’t we just kicking the can down the road by forcing me to buy new DVDs when these new ones are inevitably scratched to uselessness by these decomposing paper cases?