The end of the dream: "Portlandia" kicks off its final season

As IFC's signature comedy enters its final season, its stars consider how the show has changed Portland

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published January 18, 2018 7:00PM (EST)

Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein in "Portlandia" (IFC/Augusta Quirk)
Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein in "Portlandia" (IFC/Augusta Quirk)

During the final media day for IFC’s “Portlandia,” Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen ruminated on the end of the world. Some of their musings were inspired by an eight season sketch featuring Kumail Nanjiani, a favorite guest star of the show and returning to play the proprietor of  a prepper boutique known as Disaster Hut. The shop’s motto isn’t quite as snappy as “put a bird on it,” but it captures Portland’s penchant for P.C. practicality and abundance: “Why survive when you can thrive?”

This being “Portlandia,” the conversation takes a turn from evaluating their lists of necessities to sustain life to aesthetic concerns, such as the value of one rock band over another. What use is living without the best soundtrack, right?

As IFC launches the eighth and final season of “Portlandia” Thursday at 10 p.m., the network owes much to Armisen, Brownstein and series co-creator Jonathan Krisel, for raising its profile as an off-kilter comedy band.

“It just feels about right. Eight seasons is a lot. We're lucky to have made it that far,” Armisen said to reporters. “That's a lot of television. It just feels like we want to have some, just a little bit of control over how a season can end or a series can end as opposed to it going off the rails.”

The half-hour’s breezy sketches simultaneously surf and guide the waves of popular culture and all of its idiosyncrasies. Only some of it feels very singularly Portland-ish these days; now, it’s a show whose appeal lies in knowing that every major city contains a bit of Portlandia within its limits.

“As the show's gone on, it feels a little bit like it's been less about the city specifically and more about the characters getting to know each other,” Armisen explained. “. . . [Portland] started as the framework for the show, it's remained that. You might see it on screen. But things might look a little different. Some new condos here and there.”

Anyway, had “Portlandia” clung to punchlines only recognizable to Oregonians, it probably would not have made much of a dent. The show’s Portland is merely a stage upon which any number of lefty, hipster self-indulgences receive a ribbing — but never a mean-spirited one. That isn’t the Portland way.

This ethos guides the show’s gentle humor, enabling the best of its sketches to go viral while maintaining a longer shelf-life that most memes.

As for the city itself, one might argue that the city would have ascended in popularity with or without the duo’s interpretation of its quirks.

Grunge and indie rock put Portland on the map in the 1990s, when it became known as the affordable more liberated little sister to Seattle. By then the home of “Grey’s Anatomy” had already commenced a population expansion further accelerated by the tech boom. In Portland, artists could rent entire houses and pay the rent on a barista’s take-home earnings. Specialized, quirky businesses such as the UFO Museum or the 24 Hour Church of Elvis, have been priced out of what are now prime real estate locations.

Among the many ways “Portlandia” had the city dead to rights was the lyric in its series-opening song, “Dream of the ‘90s,” that described the city as a place “where young people go to retire.” But even in January 2011, when the series premiered, that wasn’t quite true anymore.

Back to September 2017, when a group of journalists tagged along with Armisen and Brownstein during one of the final days of production on “Portlandia.”  Though the day brimmed with a cheeriness and enthusiasm even as the cast and crew (and local officials, who honored the show in a ceremony held in a public park) prepare to say goodbye, Brownstein described the final season as a response to what she characterizes as a sense of doom.

Everybody got “Dream of the 90s,” Brownstein said, “because it already existed. We didn't introduce that concept. Our show started at a time, during the Obama administration, where it felt like we're in this ‘post-whatever’ society: Post-race, post-gender.  That the house had been built and now all we had to do was decorate it as a society. And then now, it turns out that, oh, maybe we had a terrible foundation.”

But she also adds that the darkness of recent times has made her realize the way “Portlandia” and other comedies have, in effect, helped viewers maintain their sanity.

“Now I just feel like there's a cancer on America and all of the sudden people are like, "Wow, I guess we just really needed to laugh.’ I feel the same way,” she said, citing “Broad City” as one of the shows that gives her “a physical feeling of relief, kind of a momentary distraction.”

“Even though I said the dream is dead, there is so much laughter and silliness in this whole season,” she added. “Nothing we do is ever separate from that sense of absurdity and that desire to look at things through a lens like that.”

Since its debut discussions of Portland have become intertwined with “Portlandia” for better or worse. A number of series have filmed in its metropolitan area during the time that it’s been on the air, including the TNT series “The Librarians” and “Leverage,” and NBC’s genre drama “Grimm.” Only “Portlandia” alloyed itself to locations around the Rose City and amplified assumptions about every crunchy, lefty quirk that outsiders assign to its residents.

Many of these are embodied in characters teams portrayed by Armisen and Brownstein, including the fictionalized versions of themselves. But they also play the overly earnest Peter and Nance; the high-maintenance Nina (played by Armisen) and her devoted gearhead boyfriend Lance (Brownstein); goth duo Vince and Jacqueline, among others just as unique and unforgettable.

But it’s hard to say whether Portlanders love the show more than the loathe it. City and state officials are enthusiastic fans, naturally. Ted Wheeler, the real mayor of Portland (as opposed to the one famously played by Kyle MacLachlan), characterized himself as a fan in a recent “60 Minutes” feature on the show and the city.

“People in Portland, they either love it, or they hate it,” Wheeler told the CBS newsmagazine. “The people who love it, love it because it's funny because it's true. And the people who hate it, hate it because it's true.”

“I certainly have had conversations with friends and acquaintances in other parts of the country and the world and said, I'm from Oregon and they said, “Oh, ‘Portlandia’! Is it like that?” Tobias Read, Oregon’s State Treasurer, told Salon in September. “There's value in people recognizing the quirkiness and uniqueness of this place we call home. That's powerful and important.”

Addressing the question of how it’s benefitted the local economy,” Read said, “I'm sure that it would be possible to find direct connections in some cases, but I think broadly it's helped us be connected with the world and feel good about being able to stand up against any other place in the world.”

According to statistics listed on The Confluence, a blog that serves Oregon’s film, television and media industry, over the last 8 years “Portlandia” has accounted for almost $40 million of direct spending and supported 200 annual jobs with nearly $15 million in payroll, and $18 million in in-state goods & services paid to more than 100 Oregon vendors each season.

Another truth, one for which “Portlandia” has taken a share of blame, and perhaps unjustly, is Portland’s transformation from affordable, livable hidden gem of the West Coast to a crowded and quickly expanding metropolis.

Exhibit A: The homey bungalow in the city’s Overlook neighborhood in the North side of town that served as Fred and Carrie’s house. On that day in September, the house was listed for a sale price of $685,000. Records on indicate that it sold for $700,000 — twice what the previous owner paid for it in 2004.

While some would call this an example of the area’s financial boom, it’s also reflective of the city’s problems with gentrification and the shrinking amount of affordable housing. The Northeast side of town was long a predominantly black and Hispanic part of town whose residents slowly have been squeezed out of their neighborhoods since the late ‘90s. But the rate of gentrification has accelerated rapidly in recent years.

And some Portland residents have struck back at the show, notably the proprietors of the feminist book story and community center “In Other Words” which, until 2016, doubled as the home of Women and Women First, which demonstrated an overboard version of Second Wave-feminism as lived by its humorless owners Candace and Toni, two more Armisen and Brownstein creations.

Then again, this story reflects ones being told in Seattle, Eugene, San Francisco and cities all over the West Coast.

“Obviously, things come onto the scene and if you're lucky what happens is, it becomes part of a cultural conversation,” Brownstein said.

Brownstein is a Northwest native as well. She first gained renown as a member of the rock band Sleater-Kinney, and though she grew up in Washington state, she’s lived in Portland since 2001. In recent years her burgeoning acting career (including a regular role in Amazon’s “Transparent”) has her traveling back and forth between the Northwest and Los Angeles.

Working on “Portlandia,” she says, has “intensified my feeling of protectiveness toward the city. . . as someone who is an introvert and kind of a hermit, it has forced me out into the community and I value that a lot. As things have changed so quickly, with how we all communicate with one another, I feel so fortunate to get to interface with people all the time.”

“I feel like I love the city more than I ever have,” she added.

What about the final snapshot of “Portlandia”? Armisen and Brownstein already knew how they wanted the show to end by the time reporters spoke to them on IFC’s media day, revealing that they had already shot it.

“On the other hand, if it doesn't work out we'll completely get rid of it,” Brownstein said.

“Which happens,” Armisen interjected. “You have this intent to make something and, you never know.”

Coaxed to hint as to how it would leave its audience, Brownstein assured interviewers that despite any themes of doom addressed in the last season, the show would not leave fans on a down note.  “This show is not cynical,” she declared. “I feel like cynicism is pretty toxic and it's harder than ever to circumvent it so I would hate to inflict that upon an audience just for the sake of being high minded or poignant. We'll leave people, hopefully, feeling good."

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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