Judge Bill Gibron is still waiting for a series called Bransonia.
Too cool for its own home school?
Humor has a history of two-person talent showcases. From The Kathy and Mo Show, to Little Britain and Greater Tuna, the idea of actors playing multiple roles as a reason for some sort of satiric commentary has carried many a duo to fame and fortune. In the case of IFC's cult hit Portlandia, Saturday Night Live's Fred Armisen and Wild Flag's singer/guitarist Carrie Brownstein want to take on the new-age hipster hokum of the Pacific Northwest. Their partnership developed on the web, and when the cable channel came calling, they got the chance to centralize their premise and place their wit within the confines of a community that values both the eclectic and the downright deranged. For the most part, Armisen and Brownstein hit their marks with effectiveness and ease. But as with any sketch-based format, there is a hit or miss quality that belies the format's nonfatal flaw.
Facts of the Case
Taking on different personas while maintaining certain character constants, Fred and Carrie in a typical episode of Portlandia get into some manner of mix-up, while other "personas" around them deal with their own unusual and often intertwining issues. Set within the fabled Oregon town and populated with a wide range of oddballs, weirdoes, intellectuals, and clearly fictional found elements, it's a mad, mad, mad, mad, mad menagerie. There are an unusual number of quirky cameos (Eddie Veder, Miranda July, Johnny Marr) and a piecemeal approach to every 20-minute installment. Sometimes a sketch will be incredibly brief. Other times it will overstay its welcome. Then there are times when a clever idea is underserved by the scattered style. Still, within the 10 episodes offered in Season Two are a lot of funny moments and some real insight into life in the United States circa 2012.
While there are several stories going on in each installment, here are the main narrative "themes" for each of the shows:
• "Mixology"—A cool bartender causes one passionate fan to follow him anywhere.
• "One Moore Episode"—Two obsessive fans try to get one last episode of their favorite show made.
• "Cool Wedding"—A couple plans the perfect nuptials.
• "Grover"—A couple tries to get their kid into the "right" private Pre-K.
• "Cops Redesign"—The Mayor decides that the police department needs a makeover.
• "Cat Nap"—A "kidnapping" causes chaos for a local band.
• "Motorcycle"—An offhand comment creates a kind of midlife crisis.
• "Feminist Bookstore 10th Anniversary"—The arrival of an old friend upsets a celebration.
• "No Olympics"—The idea of having said international Games in Portland is hotly debated.
• "Brunch Village"—A new eatery has the town up in arms, much to the dismay of the "regulars."
For all its hipster smarm, for its desire to be so self-referential and ironic that it practically screams for a Death Cab for Cutie meets Mumford & Sons backdrop, Portlandia is a show of subtle pleasures. It's the difference between a smile and a snicker, a grin and a guffaw. Sometimes, a proposed comedy just doesn't light up the laughter meter. Instead, it tickles your internal funny bone, making you aware of its potential as comedy, but not its clear ability to earn entertained chuckles. There's no denying that most of Portlandia is clever and smart. It comes from a place of real understanding—about the subject, the situations, and the setting. But you won't find yourself doubled over in uncontrollable fits because of what Armisen and Brownstein create. Instead, you will enjoy a private giggle recognizing that people will be divided by the very thing you are tickled by…maybe.
The cast really reflects this uncomfortable appreciation. Both Armisen and Brownstein are unusual leads, each one providing a weird level of likeable un-likeability. They aren't instantly accessible comic performers, celebrities that kick start your affection with an arch of an eyebrow or a worn-out catchphrase. As a matter of fact, there are times (especially during obvious targeting like vegans, feminists, New Agers, and druggies) when you want to slap them in the face. Portlandia is a very insular show. It speaks to a specific mindset that, hopefully, expands beyond the tiny to become a bit more universal. Granted, few people can fathom how life can be so snarky and fixated on minutia, but the cast comes together and provides a window into this eccentric world. As stated before, they hit their mark, but as this is a sketch-oriented show (with continuing characters and circumstances), there will be misses as well. Besides, there is only so much pretension one can take…and this can be a very pretentious experience.
Overall, Season Two cements what made the show such a cult hit in the first place. Though it's an old cliche, whenever Armisen dresses in drag (as when we visit the Women and Women First bookstore), the results are truly funny. Watching the duo work every conceivable anti-male agenda item into a short comic piece is priceless. Similarly, when the duo take on the nouveau riche transplants from their hated Southern neighbor, the results really zing. And let's just say that, obsessing on Battlestar Galactica wins points for its pure glorified geek goodness alone. Still, Portlandia can be a bit…how can I say it…puzzling?…especially if you just walked into the series for the first time. There will be questions—like what's so funny about saying "we can pickle that" over and over? Or why are some of the guest stars used brilliantly (Kyle McLachlan, Penny Marshall, Jeff Goldblum) while others seem inserted to merely up the "cool" factor. Is unusual international cuisine funny? And, is a harp ever hilarious? In general, you'll find more to love about Portlandia: Season Two than hate. Still, there's enough backslapping satire to aggravate your inherent irritation factors.
Since it is filmed in the actual city under more or less natural conditions, one would expect any digital release of the series to suffer a bit. For the most part, however, the 1.78:1/1080p presentation of Portlandia is very good, with a couple of caveats. First off, there is not the level of contrast and detail one would normally expect from a shot on video and transferred to HD TV show. Colors are slightly muted, and the overall feel is a bit flat. Still, the overall effect is very good. Sonically, we are stuck with a plain Dolby Digital 2.0 mix: nothing lossless, no attempt to engage the back channels or multi-speaker set-ups. On the other hand, the dialogue is always crystal clear and easy to understand, and since it is the driving force of the series, that's all that matters. As for extras, we get a director's cut of "Brunch Village," as well as a behind-the-scenes featurette, a deleted scene, a brief bit about Seattle, and an excerpt from an upcoming Portlandia tour guide. Finally, Armisen, Brownstein, and series co-creator Jonathan Krisel comment on four episodes. They do a great job of pointing out unknown elements and incredibly insular references.
With Season Three set for a January 2013 premier, it appears that Armisen and Brownstein still have more to say (and savage) about their favorite Pacific Northwest whipping boy. For those who think that everything about the series satisfies their own internal sense of humor, this is nothing but good news. But for those of us (yours truly included) who feel a bit like outsiders uninvited to the block party, here's hoping that Portlandia finds a bit more consistency…in tone, in target, and in timing. Clearly, the source is an infinite well of weirdness. Channeling that successfully has, so far, been an inconsistent outing…funny and fun, but not without its issues.
Not Guilty, though not as great as it thinks it is.
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