I’ll admit it: it’s been a couple weeks since I checked in on Portlandia. After a whirlwind of posts, an onslaught of thoughts, and a double dose of premieres, I stopped paying attention. I’ll admit that all the exposure made my inner hipster murmur: “Portlandia’s getting too big. It’s SO OVER .” Wouldn’t you know it—when I finally looked up the latest, I was met with this humorously scornful depiction of my very mindset at the moment. (How did they know ?)
After that, I was back on board, just in time to catch two sketches from Episode 5. These two offerings, coincidentally, exemplify my favorite and least-favorite aspects of the series as a whole.
“Flyer Wars,” depicts two pairs of hands trying to post fliers on the same pole: one to promote a rock festival, and the other to find a lost kitten. It’s a universal scenario, magnified by Portland priorities (we do love our bands and cats) and made ridiculous by an exaggeratedly sped-up sequence of events. It’s roughly the same device that was used in the “Did You Read” sketch, with a similarly funny effect.
…and then there’s the following “Deuce Hotel” sketch, in which Portlandia dumps out the rest of its bag of tricks: proving it can cast indie-rock stars (in this case, Colin Meloy, James Mercer, and Corin Tucker), but giving them deadpan, dead-end roles. Winkingly alluding to local institutions (in this case, the Ace Hotel) with you-have-to-already-know exclusivity. Ending on an inconclusive, punchline-less “WTF” note, and depicting hipsters as simultaneously riled-up and tuned-out (a combination of temperaments that rarely occurs in life). If this episode is trying to make me laugh, it’s a fail. And with so much raw material to work with here, that seems a waste.
Portlandia , I’m seeing a pattern. Your finest sketches show social phenomena (competition, sexuality, compulsion) and stereotypes (hippster, yuppie, intellectual) not limited to PDX, then exaggerate or warp the details to fit the Portland cultural landscape. Your best dialogue and action also tends to keep a snappy pace. Meanwhile, your weaker sauce stirs in un-optimized star cameos, uncomfortable pauses, and implausible character actions. It’s stuff you can only appreciate if you know all the references—and even then, barely. I’d personally rather see pairs of anonymous hands acting hilarious, as in “Flyer Wars,” than a group of famous faces staring uncomfortably, like they do in “Deuce.” So here’s hoping that next season, Brownstein and Armisen find techniques to take the indie insider material beyond smug snorts of local recognition, into peals of universal laughter.