It’s almost hard to believe, but the original IFC sketch comedy show Portlandia has already been on the air for a total of five seasons, and five years since the show’s debut season in 2011, it has quickly become one of my favorite shows. Even when I haven’t kept up with the antics featured by the show’s co-stars, co-writers, and co-creators Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, I have managed to keep the spirit of many of the program’s original cast of characters in mind whenever I have needed a slight pick me up. Starting from the pilot episode, Portlandia has been a show about the cultural misfits whose spontaneity and creativity has made them into social pariahs that exist on the very fringes of mainstream Americana. It’s easy to stereotype and scoff at characters like Candace and Toni, the proprietors of the series’ infamous Third-wave feminist book shop Women and Women First, but such mockery might be overly protective of one’s own countercultural proclivities upon closer examination.
Other oddballs populate the fictional world of Portland, Oregon as created by the fever dream that is Armisen and Brownstein’s sketch comedy playground, and as such they all operate within the imagination of a cultural underclass of daydreamers and silly hearts content to continue to create a world based on their own respective desires and artistic leanings. Ever since I first watched the show, and the cold open sequence kicked in that developed into a full-on musical number titled, “The Dream of the 1990s Is Alive In Portland,” I was immediately taken with the show’s irreverent satire of much of the angst-ridden promise and hope offered by the ethos of the grunge era. Despite my own temporal dislocation from the exact socio-political world that gave birth to such musical acts as Pearl Jam and Nirvana, I knew that the feelings held up within the melodramatic nature of those bands’ well known choruses echoed my own feelings of asocial dislocation, exactly, and Portlandia was game to take up that call ten years into the new millennium.
In some ways, Portlandia is a sort of relic, one born out of the past and remade in the present, much like the metropolitan city of arts and leisure that the series so quaintly entertains within the boundaries of its supported sketch comedy. Again, characters like Nina and Lance, the show’s ditzy girlfriend and motor-head boyfriend couple, play off like gender specific clichés, but in Armisen and Brownstein’s open courtship of playing the character who outwardly embodies the gender opposite to themselves, comedy performed in drag is lent a new lease on life unseen since the days when it was common to see the likes of Monty Python’s Eric Idle and Dan Aykroyd wearing dresses on late night television presumably seen by more than a few conservative home viewers. It would be hard to imagine very many right-wingers watching a show like Portlandia, let alone the entire IFC network of off-brand original programming, but then again, the very fact that there is a show like it that has enough cultural cache to be citable to your average NPR listener is truly something and speaks to the show’s ability to reach a wider audience perhaps not quiet ready to live as superfluously as the show’s featured malcontents.
Like many of the original and cameo characters who have appeared over the course of the program’s five year run so far, Brownstein is herself a part of the 1990s movement in arts and leisure that many of the characters whom she portrays on the show aspire to be a part of themselves. And if you know anything about Brownstein, you know she plays lead guitar in the seminal riot grrl indie rock scene of the Pacific Northwest of the 1990s, Sleater-Kinney, a fact that serves to embolden and mock many of the characters she plays. Likewise, Armisen’s own musical acumen, stemming from his own stint in the now-defunct punk band Trenchmouth of the same musical era as Sleater-Kinney, provides for an immediacy and intimacy that he shares with Brownstein that makes much of the comedy on display self-effacing yet earnest. Characters on the show like Candace and Toni, or Nina and Lance, appear twee on first glance, but much of that presumed preciousness soon gives way to the delicate balance that the show maintains between outright mockery and sympathetic identification with its featured stereotypes.
Portlandia is another Lorne Michaels production that might have gone unnoticed by those otherwise exhausted by the seeming narcissism of the Seattle sound, and the many sub-cultures that it gave birth to, in the wake of the 1990s in America. But it is also one of the most articulately conceived narrative tributes to the that self-same movement that succeeds largely due to the program’s self-identification with all of the attributes that may be applied to it, good and bad. Appearing as various versions of themselves over the course of the show’s five season run thus far, Armisen and Brownstein’s original sketch comedy characters playfully satirize many a leftward-leaning twenty-something still struggling to come into their own in a political climate as fractured and informed by the late twentieth century as our own real life selves. In more ways than one, Portlandia is a lifeline for those who feel otherwise disconnected from society at large, and have always been made to feel a little alien to those otherwise unquestioning when it comes to the latest digitally manufactured convenience of socially manufactured contrivance.
I, for one, am always happy when the next season of Portlandia airs, even when I don’t get around to catching up with the show until a full year after an entire season has premiered. In Armisen and Brownstein’s hands, I know that the show will serve as a rallying cry for those like myself, who, at times, feel geographically out of sorts with their temporal existence, and their show serves as a reminder of the age old, J.R.R. Tolkien-inspired adage that not all those who wander are lost. The dream of the 1990s is alive on Portlandia, so here’s to the next five years.
Featured Image: IFC