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Review – Portlandia

February 2, 2011

Portlandia – IFC – 10:30/9:30pm Friday – USA

Fred Armisen has been on Saturday Night Live for 9 seasons. Just to give you an idea of how long ago that was, Armisen was hired to fill one of the spots left by Will Ferrel. At that point in time Ferrel had yet to star in Elf, that’s how long ago it was. Anchorman was still two years away. Think of the sheer number of Will Ferrel movies you’ve sat through and then imagine a time before that. You can’t. You can’t imagine a time when Will Ferrel wasn’t starring in half the movies released in any given year. That’s just how long ago it was Fred Armisen joined Saturday Night Live.

There are some SNL scholars (and by ‘SNL scholars’ I mean my brother who still inexplicably watches every episode of the show despite it being stuck in a creative slump for the last three years) who refer to Armisen as the weakest link in an already fairly flimsy chain. Lately it seems Lorne Michaels has been willing to give him more of an opportunity to just go out and be weird for seven minutes and call it a sketch. So it should really come as no surprise then that Lorne Michaels is behind Portlandia, a sketch comedy vehicle for Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, former lead-singer of Sleater-Kinney, which allows them both to be as weird as they want to be all within the comfort of their own show.

Portlandia is the sort of show that opens with a full length song describing how Portland (“Oregon?” “Yeah.”) is a place where the dream of the 90’s is still alive. An amusing slightly off-kilter ditty about how in Portland all the hot girls wear glasses, people still go to clown school and sleep til eleven. As Brownstein gets excited she starts imaging an alternative universe where Gore won, where people ride bikes or double-decker bikes. It’s a humorous track that doesn’t really try to be anything more than a little bit odd.

The mild chuckles elicited during the opening song are the standard response I had to most of the sketches Portlandia offered up. Each sketch we drop in on takes place somewhere in or around Portland and most of the characters are milder versions of the sort of weirdos Armisen usually portrays; two ladies who run a woman’s themed bookstore, a couple at a restaurant obsessed with the origin of the chicken their ordering, an Adult Hide & Seek League. The characters are all the sorts of alternative hippy-dippy types the opening song eluded too. While it’s never particularly biting comedy the sketches are mildly humorous but usually peter out without a satisfying conclusion, which is the same problem that’s plagued SNL’s sketches for years.

Fred Armisen may have overstayed his welcome on Saturday Night Live but he’s really in his element here. None of it left me in hysterics but he and Carrie Brownstein obviously know these types of Portland locals and inject a personal quality into the comedy. The show is shot in dull greens, browns and greys and at times feels a little twee. Steve Buscemi pops up for one sketch and fits right in as a man who just wants to use the bathroom of a bookstore even if it means he’ll be accused of being a pimp for just wanting to buy something and leave (“do I look like a pimp to you?” “when a man pulls out money away from a register I have to wonder.”) Buscemi’s scenes drag on a bit but fit right in with the whole feel of Portlandia. Jason Sudeikis on the other hand plays a cult leader as if he’s still hamming it up on SNL and isn’t appearing on SNL’s little cousin who’s really into Indie music and jokes about vegans.

Portlandia is too unformed at this point in its life to be worth much of an investment. Its goofiness is winning and the writing is clever if a little aimless. A couple of episodes could really see it sharpen up and start to fly, but it doesn’t exactly have the feel of a show that intends to do that. It really does feel like the sort of show thought up by a comedian taking a break from his day job, and a musician who only does acting as a hobby. In fact it feels like the sort of show that would created by people who got to live out the dream of the 90’s, which probably means that Portlandia is everything that Portlandia wants to be.

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