Fans of the potential that "Saturday Night Live" has long flirted with but only teasingly dabbled in for years will find solid laughs in "Portlandia," a fresh and charismatic new six-episode, single-camera sketch comedy from IFC. Fred Armisen of SNL and Carrie Brownstein, formerly of the band Sleater-Kinney, come together to poke fun at hipster life in what has endlessly been proclaimed one of America’s, most livable cities, Portland, Oregon.
A more fleshed-out extension of the Armisen & Brownstein’s videos under the name ThunderAnt, the sketches lampoon the hippie/hipster phenomenon surrounding Portland, an alt-lifestyle-idealist kid brother to Seattle’s post-90s overly conscious cool. The first episode hits the ground running with a brilliant intro song declaring that "the dream of the 90s is alive in Portland" and celebrating a return to a time when people were encouraged to be weird.
"Remember when people were content to be unambitious, sleep to 11, hang out with their friends?" Fred asks her. "When they just wanted to form bands, or go to clown school?"
"I gave up clowning years ago," Brownstein says.
"Well, in Portland, you don’t have to." It is, he says, "a city where young people go to retire."
The show’s first non-musical skit finds the duo playing a couple ordering dinner at a healthy-food restaurant, asking a ridiculous amount of questions about their potential chicken dinner before ultimately deciding they must visit the home farm of the poultry before ordering it. Naturally, they discover the chicken-breeding farm to actually be a cult, a twisted collective headed by a polygamist named Aliki (the wonderful Jason Sudeikis). And it only gets weirder from there.
The show’s immersion into bizarre narratives such as these doesn’t feel tiresome, as it does on SNL, and Armisen is in a terrific element with full command over his onscreen character development. Somewhat surprisingly to newcomers to her comedy, Brownstein has a broad comedic range, with convincing immersion into characters and solid timing in delivery.
The ultra-enlightened hipster is crucified in "Portlandia," particularly through a coffee-shop discussion about current articles and events that dissolves into vicious one-uppery on who’s more informed and enlightened than the other. Equally powerful is Armisen’s technology loop bit, spoofing of what most of us accept as our everyday lives: stuck between updating his Netflix queue, answering his phone, texting, checking HuffPost links, replying to email and back again. "Please help me…" he whispers to Brownstein, before she shows him a picture of his pre-internet self.
The most peculiar, and perhaps best, skit of the night took place at the Women & Women Only Bookstore, in which restroom-user Steve Buscemi finds himself at odds with the shop-owners, who aren’t satisfied with a simple token purchase to qualify the "Restrooms for Customers Only" sign. It makes brilliant use of Buscemi’s gangly frustration, anchoring pensive viewers with a Hollywood hero who gives a good showing.
With SNL ball and chain Lorne Michaels on board as executive producer, I fully expected "Portlandia" to be a waste of time with an emphasis on nonsense jokes and slapsticky humor. It’s a pleasant surprise to be wrong here, and high credit goes to Armisen, Brownstein and co-creator Jonathan Krisel for making a smart comedy with solid meat, but light enough to be free of schticky cheap shots, which would get old quickly. Looking forward to the five remaining shows!
CraveOnline Rating: 8.5 out of 10