'Portlandia' can be a funny place

Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen (right) show their reverence for Jason Sudeikis' farming practices.
Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen (right) show their reverence for Jason Sudeikis' farming practices.
Posted: January 12, 2012

Portlandia, the frequently hilarious sketch comedy show whose second season began last week, creates a dilemma for its audience:

How to react to a TV show that mocks you, and yet - by its status as a buzzed-and-blogged-about cult hit - reaffirms you at the same time?

The show, which airs at 10 p.m. Friday on IFC, stars creators Fred Armisen of Saturday Night Live and Carrie Brownstein of the rock band Wild Flag. And its principal intention is to satirize the preciousness of the hipster lifestyle that has reached its drizzly apotheosis in Portland, the mad-about-coffee, indie-rock and cycling (and recycling) second city of the Pacific Northwest.

Portlandia skewers a locavore culture where sensitive patrons feel compelled, before devouring a free-range chicken, to visit the farm where it was raised (Brownstein and Armisen's characters did that in an amusing first-season skit). And it captures the horror of living in a city filled with would-be tastemakers where everyone, including your mother, has his or her own DJ night.

Brownstein and Armisen - who were depicted recently in the New Yorker as having such an intensely platonic relationship that they text each other before going to bed every night - began their comic collaboration with a series of Internet-released videos. The video series, under the name ThunderAnt, grew into Portlandia, which premiered on IFC in January 2011.

Both Armisen and Brownstein have musical connections. He played drums in the early 1990s in the Chicago punk band Trenchmouth; Brownstein, who was one-third of the great riot-grrl band Sleater-Kinney, became a music blogger for National Public Radio and then a founder of Wild Flag. The duo will bring "Portlandia: The Tour" to Philadelphia on Feb. 19, at the Trocadero. (Tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. Thursday; for more information go to www.thetroc.com.) Brownstein will return in rock mode to play the Troc with Wild Flag on April 13.

Portlandia's wicked, straight- faced humor is never heartless. But it can be kind of mean, as in an episode airing next Friday when it mocks the militant and bad-facial-haired bike messenger Spyke as he plans his "cool wedding" to his equally unlikable fiancee, Iris.

Also targeted in season two: feminist bookstores where the word unit (as in air-conditioning unit) is forbidden because of its phallic associations, coffee shops with terrible art hung on the walls, and Steampunk foodies with handlebar mustaches whose solution to every troubling situation is "We can pickle that!"

One measure of the show's success - and one reason for the cooler-than-thou to congratulate themselves for knowing about it before mainstream outlets - is the number of moonlighting musicians and actors doing guest spots during the 10-week season. Kyle MacLachlan, a first-season standout as the mayor of Portland (with real Portland Mayor Sam Adams as his aide), will return in a coming episode that also features Annie Clark, the indie-guitar goddess who performs under the name St. Vincent.

A highlight of last week's premiere was an extended skit with SNL's Andy Samberg as an amorous mixologist. Friday's episode features Edward James Olmos in an extended riff on Battlestar Galactica and the dangers of addictive TV-series DVD sets, Jeff Goldblum as the owner of a knot store, and Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder, as himself.

Portlandia isn't always uproarious. While almost all of its comedic darts hit the bull's-eye in episode one, there are enough stretches in the next couple of episodes where you're sitting around waiting for the funny to start that you might think you're watching an uninspired SNL episode. A bit with Jack McBrayer of 30 Rock where he's punished at the checkout counter for not bringing in his reusable shopping bag doesn't play nearly as amusingly as it sounds.

For the most part, though, Portlandia's eye is keen, its observations cutting, its irony not overdone. And most promisingly, some of the best bits are not merely about the way hipsters live now, but the way almost everybody else does.

Fitting that bill are a guffaw-inducing view of Portland's Allergy Pride Parade, a visit to a restaurant called Around the World in 80 Plates where every dish on the gargantuan menu can be "lobsterized," and a bit in which Brownstein drops her iPhone - seeing her life-as-it-has-been-reshaped-by-mobile-technology flashing before her eyes. Portlandia may not be as essential a part of modern life as that imperiled smartphone but, still, I wouldn't want to live without it.

Contact staff writer Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or ddeluca@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at http://www.philly.com/inthemix.

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