Portlandia seasons 1 and 2 released on DVD
Claw-sharp writing and immensely enjoyable central performances from an unlikely duo
So what is one of the top 25 under-rated guitarists ever (c/o Rolling Stone) doing in a sort-of satirical online comedy show? The path of creativity certainly can take some strange detours, but the chemistry of Carrie Brownstein (she of Sleater-Kinney fame) and Fred Armisen (a Saturday Night Live alumnus) would surely have found a way to reach each other one day. After getting pally at an SNL bash, they produced some web-only sketches under the ThunderAnt moniker, the seeds of which have flourished with several seasons of Portlandia (the first two of which are now out on DVD).
The opening scene of the first episode pretty much lays their wares on the table. ‘Carrie’ bumps into old friend ‘Fred’ who has just returned to LA from a spell in Portland, Oregon. He breathlessly tells her of this strange parallel universe where they act and live as though it was still the 1990s (this scene is cleverly rejigged in season two, but it would be spoiling it to reveal too much). And so we are taken to a place where proto-über-feminists rigidly run a women’s bookstore, a company exists to sell bad art to new coffee shops, a wedding planner is forced to create ‘a cool wedding’ for an anti-marriage couple and the police department gets a radical makeover.
The Portlandia comedy is couched in familiar scenarios taken one step too far before being bent out of all recognition. We all know someone who might care so much about animals that they could possibly ask a brief question to a waiter about the route a chicken took to reach their plate, right? Yeah, but do you know anyone who would leave the restaurant to track down the farm where their meat was raised before being embroiled in a messiah-led sex cult? Possibly not. And we’ve all sat down to watch ‘one more episode’ of a DVD boxset before realising that it’s daylight, haven’t we? Well, sure, but it’s unlikely it would lead you to lose your job before tracking down someone you falsely believe to be the programme’s creator and force them to write a brand new episode, triggering a cast reunion, isn’t it?
Brownstein and Armisen play all the major duos in the show, but there are some admirable celebrity co-stars and cameo appearances. Kyle MacLachlan is on brilliant form as the town’s mayor (his rendition of the city’s anthem being a particular highlight) whose assistant Sam is the actual Portland mayor. And there are excellent turns from Aimee Mann who has been forced to quit music and turn to house cleaning, Jeff Goldblum as the boss of an artisan knot store, a tattoo of Eddie Vedder (as well as the actual Pearl Jam leader) and Johnny Marr as a harassed bike-owner. All of which sounds funny itself, but the claw-sharp writing and the immensely enjoyable central performances flesh it all out into highly original slices of sketch show delight.
Portlandia season one and two DVD box set is out now on Mediumrare.