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TV Weekend: Portlandia

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Has there ever been a better-targeted show than Portlandia? A gentle sketch-comedy sendup (debuting tonight) of high-minded, laid-back, arts-focused, sustainability-oriented living in Portland, Ore., for IFC channel, it is, essentially, a comedy for people who watch IFC, about people who would watch IFC (if they owned televisions), on IFC. It’s regionally specific, but really also a spoof of a certain interstate psychographic of small cities, college towns and neighborhoods. And as a former resident of Ann Arbor and a current one of Park Slope, Brooklyn (NYC is too expensive to be properly laid-back but it’s the closest local approximation), I’m probably as dead-center in its demo as for any show outside Bored to Death.

All that is to say: your mileage may vary, especially if you do not live within a half-mile of a community-supported-agriculture distribution center or in a town with a municipal bike-share program. But while the first two episodes of Portlandia are hit-and-miss, its good-natured satire generally hits, as they say, pretty close to home.

Portlandia stars SNL’s Fred Armisen (a Portlander in the off-season) and neighbor Carrie Brownstein, former guitarist of Sleater-Kinney. (Because when you think comedy, you think members of pioneering indie-rock bands!) The Portland it depicts is a town of alt-lifestyles, idealists and people working very hard to live simply; a place, as one segment puts it, “where young people go to retire.” It’s a place where passive-aggression is might, and a small footprint is status. A running bit in one episode has Armisen and Brownstein trying to write a theme song for the town, and lobbying the mayor, played by Kyle MacLachlan, who rides into his office on a sensible bicycle and takes meetings while sitting on a Pilates ball. (He encourages them, “I love my artists! I support them!” and implores them: “Don’t make it sound like Seattle.”)

The show satirizes a lot of recognizable types: a militant bike-rights guy (“Cars, man! Why???”), a pair of crafters (above) whose credo is “Put a bird on it!”  and, in the first two episodes’ most memorable creation, the judgey proprietors of a feminist independent bookstore. (Armisen plays his role in drag, which Brownstein reciprocates elsewhere in the series.) But Portlandia fortunately doesn’t take a sneering attitude or (too many) cheap shots, which would get old quickly. It has a dreamy, surreal feel and a friendly, bemused attitude to the city and its characters’ pretensions, spoofing Portland culture in the style of Portland.

The satire isn’t mean, though it is dead-on: one brilliant sketch takes the restaurant trend of local foodism to its logical extreme, when a pair of diners decide they must visit the home farm of their chicken dinner before ordering it and find that, in this case, the cult of the locavore is literally a cult. In a way, this feels like a better use of the amiable Armisen than SNL often makes of him, and Brownstein is a really sharp comic actress, capable of pulling off broader bits and deadpan characters as well.

All in all, as you can probably tell, this is a pretty narrowly targeted satire, but that’s the sort of thing IFC excels at. Befitting its subject city, Portlandia is not to everyone’s taste, but it’s an eccentric, surprising little microbrew of a show.

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