Judge Gordon Sullivan is afflicted with an unusual craving for coffee and flannel.
"The dream of the '90s is alive in Portland."
Although it's easy to stereotype the '90s with a flannel shirt and the "slacker" tag, there was some pretty serious utopian energy floating around the decade where the Internet became synonymous with the World Wide Web. Not everyone was just trying to be lazy and not work. Many people were looking for alternatives to the "greed is good" sentiments of the 1980s, and with the breakup of the Soviet Union anything seemed possible. Of course, nothing lasts forever. When the dotcom bubble burst, it seemed to take many slacker dreams down with it. However, the '90s energy didn't go away completely, and there are still holdouts from those heady times scattered throughout the country. One of them is Portland, Oregon, where Washington native Carrie Brownstein (of alternative rock band Sleater-Kinney) and Saturday Night Live regular Fred Armisen gently spoof the city in their sketch comedy show Portlandia. It's a dream show for fans of '90s pop culture, absurdity humor, and West Coast stereotypes.
Facts of the Case
As a sketch show, Portlandia takes on the types that seem to inhabit Portland, gently poking fun at everything from feminist bookstores and vegan eateries to technological folly. The show announces its intent in an opening scene, where Armisen and Brownstein talk about how great a city Portland is, intercut with Armisen singing a song whose chorus is "The dream of the '90s is alive in Portland." All six episodes are included on a single Blu-ray disc.
After the opening musical number, Portlandia dives straight into its dual obsessions. The first skit involves a couple (Brownstein and Armisen, a recurring theme) at a restaurant. When the waitress offers them the day's special—chicken—the couple inquires after its provenance. They ask if it's all natural, locally raised, how big an area it had to roam in, and more, until it becomes absurd. The skit ends when the couple decides to forego lunch to go check out the farm where the chicken was raised, though they return later in the episode to find out more about their chicken. The second skit involves Armisen going into a "technology spiral," as he deals with texting, tweeting, and watching his Netflix queue. He spirals out of control until Brownstein appears with the solution: "Mind-fi" a way to communicate mind-to-mind like wifi. That's the extent of the show: taking the foibles of the liberal, hippy-ish West Coast types to absurd extremes, and pointing out the follies of modern life.
Portlandia is pretty light satire, and I can't say the show tickled my funny bone all that much. Then again, sketch comedy shows can be really hit-or-miss, so there are a few reasons to watch the show even if you don't dig the satire. First, if you're a resident of Portland, this will obviously be funny to you. I know a bit about the area and knew there were references I wasn't catching. But even if you're not a native, the show does a pretty good job of consistently referring to various iconic places often enough for the audience to get to know them as well. Armisen and Brownstein also have an easy rapport that's fun to watch. Even when the skits went south, the duo was always fun to watch. Most important for me, though, is the fact that Brownstein and Armisen have been making the rounds in the film, television, and music worlds for a couple of decades now. They've obviously earned some favors, because they get some pretty sweet guests to show up for their skits. Kyle MacLachlan (Blue Velvet) has a recurring role as the mayor of Portlandia, Aimee Mann is the duo's housekeeper, and people like Steve Buscemi, Gus Van Sant, and Selma Blair show up for roles of greater or large impact. This outside influence really helps raise the show in terms of production value.
Portlandia, an indie production to the core, gets a decent Blu-ray release. The 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded widescreen transfer looks okay for a low budget, shot-on-HD indie TV show. However, the image is softer than I expected, color saturation varies a bit, and black levels are all over the place. Thankfully, none of these really detract from show's watchability, and may even contribute to its scrappy underdog vibe. Strangely, the show gets a standard Dolby 2.0 stereo mix. It's fine, with clean and clear dialogue, but there's not a lot of stereo separation. The lack of a lossless stereo mix is pretty mysterious.
The bonus features make up for some of the presentation problems. First up are commentaries by Armisen, Brownstein, and co-creator Jonathan Krisel on all six episodes. They dish about the show's genesis, production, and generally have a laugh with one another. We also get a blooper reel, some extended scenes, and a few deleted scenes. The show began as an internet idea between Armisen and Brownstein called Thunderant, and some of those early videos make an appearance here. We also get a fun commencement speech by Armisen, and the disc rounds out with a preview for Season Two. A second disc includes all the episodes on DVD.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Portlandia is definitely not a show for everyone. Sketch comedy can be hit or miss in the best of circumstances, and this is pretty pointed comedy. The show is worth checking out for lots of people, but catching it on cable or rental before buying is the best idea.
Portlandia is a fun, strange little bit of comedic madness that pokes fun at a very narrow segment of the population. It will likely appeal to those in Brownstein and Armensin's constituency, like those who grew up during that strange time that was the 1990s. The frequent guests keep things from ever getting stale, so this set is worth a look to fans of sketch comedy.
The dream is alive, and Portlandia is not guilty.
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