A Look at Armisen, Brownstein, IFC’s Portlandia
You must have to have seen “Portlandia.” Designed to embody the unique Portland ethos, the thirty-five-foot copper repoussé statue succeeds in capturing our city’s proud history of coastal commerce. But it has been overlooking SW 5th Avenue since 1985, and it’s high time Portland had a new symbol to which it could attach the “ia” suffix. At least that was the thinking of Fred Armisen (SNL) and Carrie Brownstein (vocalist/guitarist, Wild Flag, Sleater-Kinney), whose sketch-based IFC comedy, also entitled Portlandia, is rife with the sort of characters who do their best to keep Portland weird.
In the four episodes that have already aired of the six-part series, which was filmed entirely on location in Portland, we meet a pair of overly conscientious consumers, a radical bicyclist, a devout hipster, some competitively well-informed friends, and other painfully familiar caricatures. Not only do Armisen and Brownstein star in each of the interwoven sketches, but the two friends are also co-executive producers (executive producer Lorne Michaels) and co-writers (along with Allison Silverman of The Colbert Report and Jonathan Krisel of SNL). “It’s different in that it’s more about us two,” says Armisen of the project, which grew from an online series of sketches he and Brownstein developed as the comedy duo Thunderant (Behind the Scenes, iTunes). Before the feminist bookstore “Women & Women First” was a location in Portlandia, it belonged to Thunderant, and was visited by St. Vincent and Andy Samberg.
In the original press release, Portlandia was billed as a show “that lovingly illustrates the people and values of Portland, Ore.” This is putting it mildly. Besides the numerous wig changes, it seems the reason why Armisen and Brownstein have no trouble juggling multiple roles over the course of a single episode is that they have no reservations about pushing each stereotype to the point of absurdity. This is consistent with the over-the-top feel of the show, however, and Brownstein, a longtime Portland resident, insists that she and Armisen strove to be loving roastmasters: “You can never encapsulate everything about a city, but I think that we were going through it with a spirit of benevolence and true affection for it,” she says in a Behind the Scenes video.
One of my favorite Portlandia moments is from the most recent episode, “Mayor is Missing.” Portland’s mayor, played by Kyle MacLachlan, has disappeared, and it is naturally up to Fred and Carrie (as themselves) to find him. After the hassle of joining the mayor’s cellular family plan ex post facto, they are able to pinpoint his location via satellite (on a map which labels streets and bike shops only). Tracing him to a bar on NW 16th Avenue, Fred and Carrie discover their mayor moonlighting as a bassist in a reggae band. The Portlandia Times delivers the punch line: “Mayor Openly Reggae.” Sam Adams, the real mayor of Portland and the first openly gay mayor of so large a U.S. city, appears briefly in this episode, as in episode two, as the mayor’s assistant. To him, Portlandia represents a success of the Mayor’s Office of Film and Video in attracting jobs and publicity to Portland.
As for what Portlandia represents to me, I’m not yet sure. Being a newcomer to Portland myself, this fictional city is, for better or worse, tied up with my first impression of the factual one. In the Behind the Scenes video, Brownstein explains, “Our version of Portland is how we experience it, or how we want to experience it, or how we sort of hope other people experience it.” Portlandia, then, is an offer for Portlanders to look in a mirror – so what if that mirror is from a fun house? The other Portlandia, the one overlooking SW 5th Avenue, was given a voice by the poem her plaque bears, and she offers these words of wisdom: “Home is the journey we make. / This is how the world / knows where we are.” At least the TV show is funny.