‘Portlandia’ Says Goodbye at Just the Right Time
Season 1 of Portlandia opened with a song that promised a Pacific Northwest heaven: it was like the 1990s forever, “when people were content to be unambitious, sleep to eleven, just hang out with their friends… You’d have no occupations whatsoever. Maybe you work a couple of hours a week at a coffee shop?” Now beginning its eighth (and final) season, Portlandia took a satirical look at an American city that previously had little presence in popular culture. Since its premiere in 2011, the show has presented loving parody of old goths, wealthy suburbanites, feminist bookstore owners, and other figures around Portland, Oregon, mostly played by the show’s creators Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein. Its new season is more of the same familiar humor, which should satisfy longtime fans of the show. Since the beginning, Portlandia has been specific, absurdist, and often very funny; this season is no exception. All in all, though, it’s probably best that Portlandia is finally ending — the way it targets its figures of ridicule has somewhat outstayed its welcome. There are other shows providing more clever takes on white hipsters, and Portland’s veneer of “a city where young people go to retire” has lost a bit of its luster as well. Ultimately, Portlandia has had more to say about Armisen and Brownstein’s community within Portland than about Portland in general.
Portlandia began as a series of ThunderAnt sketches by Armisen and Brownstein more than ten years ago. Armisen was still on Saturday Night Live, and Brownstein was still in Sleater-Kinney. Sketches involving the city of Portland felt fresh and original, compared to the massive web content created in New York and Los Angeles. Portlandia was like a sketch comedy version of The Wire — a show set and filmed in a city too typically overlooked in popular media. The opening song on Portlandia explained that “Portland’s almost an alternative universe. It’s like Gore won. The Bush administration never happened.” The characters created for the show (including “Fred and Carrie,” a version of Armisen and Brownstein who live together and are good friends with the mayor of Portland) lead lives free of major conflicts. For these characters, a tangled set of Apple earbuds is the perfect housewarming gift, the only way to know where your food comes from is to join the farming cult that produced it, and nobody is athletic enough for a Portland baseball team to play any games. In this new season, sketches deal more directly with some of the issues Portland really faces, like widespread racism and segregation, but it still views those issues through the eyes of those with power. The mayor (Kyle MacLachlan in one of his best performances) learns this season that Portland isn’t very diverse — why did the show have nothing to say about it until season 8? Did Armisen and Brownstein learn the same time the mayor did? This sort of exploration would have been so welcome earlier in Portlandia’s run, but now, in the last season, it feels like an afterthought.
By 2018, a lot of the world satirized on Portlandia has shown up elsewhere. You’re the Worst in particular features brunch conflicts and diversions of the idle upper class in Los Angeles that will feel very familiar to viewers of IFC’s sketch series. Though filmed in Portland, much of Portlandia’s comedy is not entirely specific to the city, e.g., the early series of sketches about a couple blowing off all their obligations to marathon Battlestar Galactica and then force a local man coincidentally named Ron Moore to write another episode for them. This humor is certainly very true to a specific subculture that exists within Portland, but it also exists all over the place. Portlandia does the city of Portland a mild disservice with the way these stories become blown up to represent the whole city (just as Los Angeles TV shows can present the entire city as just Venice and Los Feliz). This issue came to a head in 2016, when the owners of In Other Words, the bookstore where the long-running Portlandia “Women and Women First” feminist bookstore sketches were filmed, cut ties with the series and declared “Fuck Portlandia.” Among their complaints about the series, which are all worth reading, was that “Portlandia is fueling mass displacement in Portland. Fred and Carrie are on billboards and realtors have gleefully begun using Portlandia’s popularity and insipid humor (‘put a bird on it!’) to make displacing the communities that made Portland a great place in the first place something twee and whimsical for the incoming technocrat hordes.” In other words, at least according to the staff at In Other Words, Portlandia’s portrayal of an idly wealthy city has resulted in the city’s further transformation into that specific satirical vision.
Discussing Portlandia, there are two figures who deserve specialized attention: Jonathan Krisel and Doug Lussenhop. Lussenhop (also known as DJ Douggpound) is a longtime collaborator of Tim and Eric and helped elevate comedy editing, particularly on Awesome Show, Great Job. Using quick takes interspersed with long, uncomfortable pauses and deliberately terrible green screen has become so common in cable comedy it’s easy to forget that it originated somewhere. As Fast Company put it, “Eventually, all the editors involved with Tim and Eric’s production company, Abso Lutely, would emulate the style Lussenhop and collaborator Jonathan Krisel helped forge.” Krisel, who started as an editor on Tom Goes to the Mayor before writing and directing for Awesome Show, Great Job, Kroll Show, Portlandia, and Baskets, has also helped develop the distinctive look and feel of these comedies. Krisel creates fraught moments where silent extras barely respond to whatever absurdity Armisen and Brownstein are shouting about and unreasonably loud sound effects when characters attempt to mine an action (on Kroll Show, this style was often integrated into the frenetic and surreal energy of reality television). Though both Krisel and Lussenhop have moved on to other projects, the look and feel of Portlandia bears their distinctive marks, as do many television comedies of the last decade.
As Portlandia comes to a close, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein both have plenty on the horizon. Armisen works incessantly; he has just joined the cast of Last Man on Earth, and as Mallory Ortberg wrote, “Every great comedy will have one nearly-unbearable episode where Fred Armisen guest-stars as an unfunny man with a godawful accent.” His other IFC comedy, Documentary Now!, has been renewed for a third season. In addition to acting and directing more and playing with the reunited Sleater-Kinney, Carrie Brownstein will be writing and directing a Hulu pilot, Search and Destroy, based on her memoir Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl (which is very exciting news). What remains to be seen is what happens next for Portland. As we’ve seen in Hawaii and Austin, when a major television production leaves town after several seasons (like Lost and Friday Night Lights), a new one will often arrive in its place to take advantage of the knowledgeable (and usually non-union) crew (like Hawaii 5-0 and The Leftovers). It would be very exciting if the next show set in Portland created a space to show other sides of Portland. It’s not fair to ask a sketch comedy show to be all things to all people, but more representation of life in Portland would hopefully mean better representation of life in Portland. It would be hard to imagine a funnier representation of life in Portland, but it’s worth a shot.
The eighth and final season of Portlandia premieres on IFC tonight at 10:00pm.
Harry Waksberg is a writer and lazeabout based in Riverside, CA. He is the creator and writer of the web series Doing Good.