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December 09, 2011

Movies You Missed 17: Portlandia

PortlandiaThis week in movies (or TV) you missed: Finally, someone made a sketch comedy show about all the different subcultures in Burlington. OK, not really. But close enough.

What You Missed

Until now, I was under the mistaken impression that "Portlandia" was a web series. It actually airs on IFC in 20-minute blocks, but a lot of the sketches have found their way to YouTube.

As you may have deduced, the setting is Portland, Ore. Most of the parts in these loosely connected sketches are played by Fred Armisen of "Saturday Night Live" and Carrie Brownstein, late of Sleater-Kinney. In the first sketch of the first episode, Armisen plays an Angeleno who returns from a trip to Portland to tell his friend about the magical place he's discovered — a city where political earnestness, slacking and "the dream of the '90s" never died.

I didn't have to watch much of the ensuing musical number to realize that Burlington and Portland are spiritual twins. Lines like "It's where young people go to retire!" sounded like outtakes from my inner monologue. Even Portland's fictional mayor (played by Kyle MacLachlan) kind of has a Bob Kiss vibe to him.

In the six episodes of season 1 (season 2 starts this coming January), we meet various Portlandia denizens, retired and not: yuppie control freaks; feminist bookstore owners; hip crafters ("Put a bird on it!"); surly musicians and would-be musicians; nerds; locavores who have to visit the farm before they can touch their chicken; aggressive cyclists; flower-child cyclists; and oh, so many more. Guest stars such as Aimee Mann, Steve Buscemi, Heather Graham and Aubrey Plaza of "Parks and Recreation" show up, too.

Why You Missed It

Maybe you didn't. Maybe you've been quoting it for months.

Should You Keep Missing It?

No. "Portlandia" is like "SNL" if "SNL" were mocking a place like Burlington instead of the real world, and if "SNL" were funny.

In tone and style, it reminded me even more of my old favorite, "The Kids in the Hall." That's not coincidental, since Lorne Michaels and his Broadway Video company produced both. They have similar credit sequences and bumpers, and both feature all members of the cast in drag. In this case, all two of them. Armisen reminds me of Bruce McCulloch as a middle-aged woman, and Brownstein is hilarious as a man.

I wouldn't mind seeing a few more regular cast members, and stronger development of the recurring characters. But, given that it's practically just them and the extras and guests, the two writer-stars carry it pretty effectively.

Also like "Kids in the Hall," the show generally goes for the absurd, conceptual joke instead of the obvious one, and it doesn't always get there. But when it's on, it's on.

I especially loved the sketch where Armisen and Brownstein are sitting in a coffee shop and one-upping each other on their recent reading: "Did you read the story in Mother Jones on eco chairs and eco ways to sit?" "I did!" ... "Did you read that steampunk article on Boing Boing?" "I did not like the end of it!"

It escalates from there, as each tries to demonstrate they're more in control of the influx of information, communication and memes, while never actually stopping to discuss any of the readings in question.

So I'm glad that from now on, if someone asks me, "Did you see the episode of 'Portlandia' where Aimee Mann became a cleaning lady for a couple of her fans who treated her like crap?" I can now say, "Yes! How about that ending? That was some cameo! Did you see the one about Sparkle Pony with the girl from the Decemberists?"

Verdict: Sure, they're in-jokes. But they're in-jokes that needed to be made.

Other New DVD Releases You May Have Missed

  • "Big Love," final season (Dude with three wives wins political office. Now what? Don't tell me.)
  • The Debt (Helen Mirren kicks Nazi ass)
  • Histoire(s) du Cinema (a long, personal essay in/on film from Jean-Luc Godard)
  • Life, Above All (a young African girl struggles to protect her loved ones)
  • Rapt (French thriller about a power broker abducted for ransom)

 Each week I review a brand-new DVD release picked for me by Seth Jarvis, buyer for Burlington's Waterfront Video, where you can obtain these fine films. (In central Vermont, try Downstairs Video.)


I love this show so much. I think of the BICYCLE RIGHTS! sketch almost daily while walking around Burlington.

I love that show, I just wish it wasn't so damn hard to watch it if you don't have IFC.

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