Young People Go to Retire in 'Portlandia'

By Rob Patterson

I always promised myself when I was younger that I wouldn’t be a grumpy old coot griping about kids today. Alas, I never expected the rise of the young adult hipsters all too common in contemporary life.

With their ironic beards, frequently mediocre stylistic mix’n’match music, slavery to trends that pretends to be different and over the counter counterculture, they have turned being cool into something often tepid, silly and laughable.

Portlandia feels all too familiar to me living in Austin, Texas, a city that’s a magnet for hipsters, neo-hippies, foodies, feministas and other characters that people the contemporary landscape of alternative culture. The place I live has long called itself somewhere that “young people go to retire.” But Portlandia beat us out by incorporating that line into its description of the Oregon city it pokes loving yet unsparing fun at in what is the most cutting comedy of modern mores and manners on TV today. It’s so damn good even the hipsters dig it.

The show is the product of the friendship and humor of Fred Armisen, the standout star of Saturday Night Live in recent years, and Carrie Brownstein, former singer and guitarist for the acclaimed all woman indie rock band Sleater-Kinney and now leader of the band Wild Flag.

It emanated from Armisen’s desire to befriend Brownstein, which resulted not only in a their becoming fast and close friends but also teaming up for comedy sketch videos they posted on the Internet. The buzz they created was enough to prompt Saturday Night Live creator and longtime producer Lorne Michaels to develop a series set in the city where Brownstein resides, picked up by the Independent Film Channel (IFC).

One big reason why Portlandia succeeds so well as that Armisen (a former indie rock band drummer) and Brownstein are themselves part and products of the alternative culture they lampoon. They know of what they make fun of well, which makes me not feel so square for finding hipsters and other young (and not so youthful) alt-culture types a bit irksome and laughable. In fact, the things I shake my head at are exactly what Portlandia skewers so skillfully.

Each episode is a series of sketches, but over its first season Portlandia introduced a set of ongoing characters that give the show continuity while its structure allows them the latitude to be free-range humorists who can poke at whatever inspires them. And it’s the seriousness of hipsterism and other alternative cultures that provides the fodder for their humor.

Most of it is gentle, sometimes even a bit silly, but most every episode offers at least one or two laugh out loud moments of sheer delight. And “Portlandia” has rich strains of art imitating life to quite funny effect. Portland’s actual mayor, Sam Adams, plays the assistant to the show’s aching-to-be-hip fictional mayor, played by Kyle MacLachlan.

Though Armisen is the experienced sketch comic, the show’s “star is born” award goes to Brownstein. She has a natural gift for humor and playing characters that’s stunning, and the camera just loves her (and I will confess now feeling a major crush on her). Though she continues her career as a rocker, I fully expect great things from her in comedy and maybe even drama in the future.

Thanks to Portlandia, now when I snicker at hipsters or raise my eyebrows in exasperation at their silliness, it’s a knowing feeling because the show tells me I am not alone. And by nailing the alt-culture those of us who live in the “cool” cities encounter daily, Portlandia has a cultural immediacy unlike any seen before on a TV series. It’s real life in the countercultural edges in all its wacky glory, which makes living among that so much easier now to enjoy.

Rob Patterson is an entertainment and political writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2012

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