“Portlandia”: Can the left laugh at itself?

SNL's Fred Armisen dares to poke fun at organic food-eating, liberal culture in "Portlandia." But is it funny?

Topics: Our Picks, TV, Portlandia, Television,

"Portlandia": Can the left laugh at itself?Fred Armisen (left) and Carrie Brownstein in "Portlandia."

In a restaurant sketch on the new IFC series “Portlandia,” a waitress approaches a man and woman at a table and asks if they’re ready to order. The woman says she’d like to know more about the chicken.

“The chicken is a Heritage Breed, woodland-raised chicken that’s been fed a diet of sheep’s milk, soy and hazelnuts,” the waitress replies.

“This is local?” man asks, leaning thoughtfully on his hand.

“Yes,” the waitress replies.

“Oregon organic, or Portland organic?” the woman asks.

“It’s just all-across-the-board organic,” the waitress says.

The questions get more intense and detailed, to the point where the couple sounds as though they’re doing a background check on a Supreme Court nominee. The waitress leaves for a moment, then returns with a dossier. “His name was Colin,” she says. “Here are his papers.”

Can the 21st century, granola-crunching, organic-farm-supporting, “Daily Show”-quoting, early-technology-adopting, bike-lane-promoting American left laugh at itself?

IFC surely had to ask itself that question before bankrolling “Portlandia,” a pet project of “Saturday Night Live” star Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, a former guitarist and vocalist for Sleater-Kinney. The limited-run series, which premieres Friday night at 10:30 p.m./9:30 Eastern, is as subtle as an off-kilter, half-hour sketch series can be. Armisen and Brownstein play most of the characters, often with strange wigs and facial appliances (in one sketch, Armisen sports a mustache that seems to be made of black electrical tape), but unlike so many “SNL” creations, the performers don’t get up in your face and demand to be laughed at.

And yet the humor is still corrosive. Armisen and Brownstein are targeting a specific Pacific Northwest subculture, but their barbs should lodge deep in any North American neighborhood in which people patronize food co-ops and vegan restaurants and independent bookstores with stacks of homemade ‘zines on the checkout counter, then zip home on mountain bikes bleating little warning noises from a whistle and muttering, “Bike, bike, bike, bike coming through!” Kyle MacLachlan — a Yakima, Wash., native and the star of the greatest Pacific Northwestern pop culture touchstone ever, “Twin Peaks” — shows up in the second episode; he’s ostensibly portraying the mayor of Portland, but he’s actually doing a devilishly funny send-up of a relatively new type of politician that has inflitrated every layer of American government: the soft-spoken, smiling, beanbag-chairs-in-the-office, “No, tell me about you“-type; the executive alpha dog as loyal puppy. (Portland’s real mayor, Sam Adams, plays the fictional mayor’s assistant.) All these social types and many others get slow-roasted (organically) in the first couple of episodes of “Portlandia.”

Series director Jonathan Krisel (“Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!”) even identifies certain modern, IFC-approved filmmaking clichés and works them into the sketches. The payoff to the restaurant scene — the couple’s pilgrimage to the woodland commune where Colin was raised — mocks the sensitive/eccentric post-collegiate visionary type of direction where, for example, two people who’ve just been introduced instinctively realize they have a Deep Connection, and the scene conveys this realization by shifting into slow-motion close-ups of the connected people staring into each other’s eyes while the soundtrack blasts a morose/magnificent pop tune that sounds like New Order played at half-speed.

The series rather pointedly teases a core section of IFC’s audience — a portion that will watch Armisen and Brownstein’s antics very closely, with an eye for accuracy, and then either roar with recognition and approval, or go on the Internet immediately and write a blog entry about how “Portlandia” doesn’t get Portland or Oregon or feminist bookstores or urban bike culture. Armisen and Browstein’s masterstroke is showing how certain flavors of modern leftist sensitivity/engagement can seem (to outsiders) like passive-aggressive self-absorption laced with contempt for the unenlightened.

“He looks like a happy little guy that runs around,” says the man in the restaurant sketch, glancing at a wallet-size photo of Colin. “Does he have other chickens as friends?”

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Burger King Japan

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.

    Elite Daily/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    McDonald's Black Burger: Because the laws of competition say that once Burger King introduces a black cheeseburger, it's only a matter of time before McDonald's follows suit. You still don't have to eat it.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Arby's Meat Mountain: The viral off-menu product containing eight different types of meat that, on second read, was probably engineered by Arby's all along. Horrific, regardless.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.

    Michele Parente/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Boston Pizza's Pizza Cake: The people's choice winner of a Canadian pizza chain's contest whose real aim, we'd imagine, is to prove that there's no such thing as "too far." Currently in development.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded: "For something decadent and artificial by design," wrote one impassioned reviewer, "it only tasted of the latter."

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>