The 90s gave us many things, among them grunge, The Real World, apathy, and other touchstones of Generation X. Usually relegated to the bottom of the list is sketch comedy, even though countless classics emerged during the decade: In Living Color, Mr. Show, The State, and Upright Citizens Brigade, just to name a few.
So it’s fitting that IFC’s Portlandia launches with the song “Dream of the 90s.” According to the show, the stereotypical 90s lifestyle – piercings and tattoos, environmentalism, bicycling, coffeeshop culture – is still going strong in Portland, “the city where young people go to retire.”
The sketch comedy show from SNL’s Fred Armisen and ex-Sleater-Kinney member Carrie Brownstein films on location and skewers the crunchy Northwestern city with great affection.
The targets of parody basically equate to examples of hipster culture, to the point where Portland is a stand-in for hipster meccas like Williamsburg and Austin. Widening the net definitely makes the show more relatable, but it sacrifices any sense of nuance about Portland’s specific character. This probably isn’t a big loss; if you want accuracy, watch the Travel Channel.
Skits about OCD locavores, adult hide-and-seek leagues, and feminist book stores hit their marks; “putting birds on things” and hand blown lightbulbs, not as much. Occasionally, the perfect mix of concept, execution and editing results in instant classics: terrifying “Google culture” offices and competitive readers (“I did not like the ending.”) are terrific.
Armisen and Brownstein carry the bulk of the show by themselves, playing a variety of recurring and one-off characters. In true sketch show fashion, they have no problem cross-dressing and gender-swapping for effect. Guest actors fill out the roster with hilarious results: Steve Buscemi, Heather Graham, and Aubrey Plaza make appearances, and Kyle MacLachlan shows up in a few episodes, known only as The Mayor.
The show’s use of indie musicians, however, is mixed. In a biting bit of satire about the state of the music industry, the couple hires Aimee Mann as their housekeeper. The two bounce between super-fan and super-yuppie, dishing out cleaning tips and insulting other female singer-songwriters (Sarah McLachlan wins the award for the Best Cameo of All Time). Unfortunately, the SXSW parody episode entitled “Blunderbuss” is a one-note joke stretched over twenty minutes, with fan-service cameos by James Mercer, Colin Meloy, Corin Tucker and Gus Van Zant wasted.
By the last episode, I found the series to be sputtering and grasping for straws. I’m not sure that there is enough material to mine for the recently-greenlit second season. If the first season felt like mid-90s SNL, I fear the second will feel like MadTV.