‘Portlandia’ is back, finding humor in a specific Northwest


Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen in “Portlandia.” (Scott Green/IFC)
Hank Stuever
TV critic January 5, 2012

Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s “Portlandia” both lampoons and celebrates the Oregon city’s famous mix of high/low hipsterdom and excruciatingly correct lifestyles, with varying results.

It skewers the unmistakable Portland vibe with a wisp of love in its heart, as Armisen (slumming from “Saturday Night Live”) and Brownstein (a veteran of the indie rock scene who knows of what she mocks when it comes to the Pacific Northwest) take on a stereotypical array of characters: demanding foodies, impossible enviro-warriors, arrogant bicyclists, zealous homeowners, feminist booksellers and deluded artisans.

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation. View Archive

Easy targets, all. And yet, back for a second season on IFC Friday night, the show seems markedly improved from its earlier efforts and somehow more confident in its writing and sense of nuance. It’s also funnier. Everyone involved with “Portlandia” recognizes that this isn’t a TV show so much as an opportunity to produce a series of quick video clips on a recurring theme, any one of which might break loose and go marvelously viral online. “Portlandia’s” real goal, it seems, is to be shared and linked into meme-dom.

My favorite sketch last season — which caught on — had Armisen and Brownstein playing twee arts-and-crafters determined to stencil or sew bird silhouettes on everything they see. “Put a Bird on It!” became an anti-hipster mantra and may well have helped snuff out a tired fashion trend of the late ’00s. If true, hooray for “Portlandia.” (A rejoinder this season could well be “We can pickle that!,” where the two play foodies obsessed with canning every object they see.)

The sketches this time are smarter and less reliant on the elusive magic of improv, that comedic school of performance from which all our funnypersons now matriculate. “Portlandia,” which bears the imprimatur of Lorne Michaels, still suffers some of the same bad habits of improv comedy workshops and “SNL,” where sketches don’t end so much as they peter out or careen off a cliff, devolving into redundant babbling contests of the same catchphrase.

But Armisen and Brownstein more than make up for their flops with exuberance to spare. As a pair of yuppie REI weekend warriors, they admonish beer-swilling inner-tubers about river rights-of-way. As an impossibly hip engaged couple (he sports those napkin-ring earlobe piercings), they try the patience of a wedding planner with their desire to break every known nuptial convention. As helicopter parents of an adult son, they tag along as he gathers signatures on a petition to ban plastic bags and strap him into his car seat when he’s done.

As the television hosts of Portland’s “Allergy Pride Parade,” they speak with solemn reverence as the malevolent “pad thai” float rolls by. They also play a young couple who decide to delay their night out by watching the first episode of Season 1 of “Battlestar Galactica” and can’t stop watching — losing their sense of hygiene as well as their jobs as they ravage through the entire box set and days elapse and entropy settles in.

“It’s so good!” Armisen’s character effuses. “How is it so good?”

“I a little bit feel like I have a bladder infection,” Brownstein says, as they pop in another disc.

By design, “Portlandia” feels like a giant inside joke — white people making fun of the most rarefied set of white-people problems — and though it’s all in fun, it’s also never far from a trenchant bit of social commentary. It targets the most virulent anti-consumers, who in fact become impossibly materialistic; it abhors urban hypocrites and dilettante trendsetters. But it’s also not out for blood. “Portlandia” is catch-and-release, hunting only for silly sport.

Portlandia

(30 minutes) returns Friday

at 10 p.m. on IFC.

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