Regular readers know I can’t be trusted to “get” modern comedy. And when I do like something, it usually bludgeons me … like 30 Rock with its rapid-fire, non-stop jokes, or Curb Your Enthusiasm with its clueless mean-spiritedness. So Portlandia might not be my cup of tea, since it offers a kinder, gentler comedy. Still, I’m willing to check out anything Carrie Brownstein is doing, so I took in the first episode of Portlandia.
And I liked it. It was kinda cute, and I don’t usually do cute, but it was cute with barbs. The barbs aren’t really gentle, either. But they are aimed at the same people who make the jokes, so there is a nice insularity to it all. Fred Armisen and Brownstein know the world of the show quite well, and they allow us to see that they are a part of the culture they are poking. So there is no mean-spiritedness at all. As others have pointed out, the show makes fun of the exact audience they can expect to be watching: smart, self-conscious folks who watch IFC.
I’m sure there is a lot of Portland-specific material … I’ve been to Portland many times, but never lived there, so I’ll leave it to the natives to judge if the show gets the place “right.” But the subject isn’t confined to Portland … there was a lot of Berkeley in what I saw, in particular the restaurant scene where the server had a dossier on the chicken that was to be served (I just ate in a place where the server explained that the mushrooms in the ice cream were picked from the Berkeley Hills, and there’s a newish restaurant in town, Gather, that has enormous chalkboards that list where all of the food on the menu comes from).
So … low-key but smart comedy, Carrie Brownstein … what’s not to like?
BTW, a footnote about Gather, which is actually a fine place … I enjoyed the burger I ate there a couple of months ago. The web site’s description of Gather could serve as a sketch on Portlandia all by itself:
Practically every material used in our interior comes with a unique story. The bar is made from a Douglas Fir that grew and fell in Camp Meeker in Sebastopol. Because the trees grow really fast in wet forests like these the rings are huge and highly distinctive.
Recycled pickle barrels are experiencing a new life as wait stations, the back bar and cabinetry in the open kitchen.
A former 100,000 gallon water tank from Marin county has been turned into tables, counter-faces and our front door; bleachers from a local high school are now banquettes and tables; the lights over the bar have been crafted out of local, recycled Square One vodka bottles and even the exposed piping in the main dining room is thoughtfully laid out to emulate the rays of the sun, exemplary of our commitment to honoring the essential elements of life.