Review: Portlandia 1×1

America's answer to the League of Gentlemen


In the US: Fridays, 10.30/9.30c, IFC

The Independent Film Channel isn’t well known as a haven of comedy – more for earnestly liberal movies – but I’ll tell you what is well known for comedy: Saturday Night Live (at least it used to be). So imagine what would happen if you married IFC with SNL.

Portlandia, that’s what.

It’s essentially a comedy sketch show set in the (supposedly) earnestly liberal city of Portland, Oregon, a place where Steve Buscemi has to buy a 14-part series of books about a woman’s journey from a feminist book store in order to use the toilet and people have to investigate the farm their organic chicken has been reared in before they’ll eat it in a restaurant. Executive-produced by Lorne Michaels and featuring in most of the roles SNL‘s Fred Armisen and the most underrated female guitarist of all time, according to Rolling Stone magazine, Carrie Brownstein – collectively known as ThunderAnt – Portlandia isn’t 100% funny but it is one of the top two US comedies of the last year or so and if you like Flight of the Conchords, you’ll probably like this, too.

Here’s a hint at its hilarity and there are other videos over here:

The 6-part IFC Original short-based comedy series PORTLANDIA, created, written by and starring Fred Armisen (SNL) and Carrie Brownstein (vocalist/guitarist, WILD FLAG, Sleater-Kinney), premieres on IFC Friday, January 21, 2011 at 10:30 PM ET/PT. Each episode’s character-based shorts draw viewers into “Portlandia,” the creators’ dreamy and absurd rendering of Portland, Oregon.

“I love Portlandia. It really represents so much of what I love culturally, musically and in so many other ways,” said Fred Armisen. “This started as just a fun summer activity for Carrie and me. We’d be hanging out in Portland and shooting whatever made us laugh, and that evolved into Portlandia.”

PORTLANDIA’s inhabitants include but are not limited to: the owners of a feminist book store; a militant bike messenger; an artsy couple who attach cut-outs of birds to everything (“put a bird on it!”); an organic farmer who turns out to be a cult leader; an adult hide and seek league; and a punk rock couple negotiating a “safe word” to help govern their love life. The first episode depicts Armisen and Brownstein meeting with the Mayor of Portland (Kyle MacLachlan) who solicits the duo to write a new theme song for the city. This segment features a cameo from the real mayor of Portland (Sam Adams) playing the assistant to MacLachlan’s “mayor.” Much of the series’ original music is written and performed by Armisen and Brownstein.

An assortment of guest stars inhabit PORTLANDIA, including Kyle MacLachlan (Twin Peaks, Sex & The City), Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation), Selma Blair (Legally Blonde, Hellboy), Heather Graham (The Hangover), Edie McClurg (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), Kumail Nanjiani (Michael & Michael Have Issues), Jason Sudeikis (SNL, The Cleveland Show), and Gus Van Sant (Milk). Singer/songwriter Aimee Mann also guest stars, alongside James Mercer (The Shins), and local Portland musicians Jenny Conlee and Colin Meloy (The Decemberists) and Corin Tucker (Sleater-Kinney).

Brownstein and Armisen spent years observing the joyous eccentricities of Portland, Oregon (when Fred was on hiatus from SNL), which spawned their “Thunderant” project, a compilation of online videos that combined their unique music styles and comedic sensibilities. Their artistic collaboration garnered an online cult following, as their “Thunderant” characters resonated with a young audience celebrating individuality, free spirit and weirdness.

Shot entirely on location in Portland, OR, the series was created and written by Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein and Jonathan Krisel (SNL, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!). Krisel also directs PORTLANDIA. The series is executive produced by Lorne Michaels; Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein, Jonathan Krisel and Broadway Video’s Andrew Singer are co-executive producers. The show is executive produced for IFC by Debbie DeMontreux, Dan Pasternack, Jennifer Caserta and Evan Shapiro.

Is it any good?
Based largely on the characters and work Bernstein and Armisen did as ThunderAnt, Portlandia‘s largely very funny, consisting of wry observational comedy and exaggeration of liberal tendencies – even if you’ve never been to Portland, you should still be able to get the jokes.

It’s quite hard to describe though, the closest show in tone being The League of Gentlemen, although without the dark, horror-inspired airs of that show. There are regular characters. There’s no real plot, just sketches involving those characters. There’s only a few core actors. There’s guest stars of some repute (Steve Buscemi, Kyle MacLachlan, Selma Blair et al). There’s musical numbers. And it’s all basically sending up Portland’s ultra-liberal populace.

Not all the sketches work. The cult leader sketch goes on way too long and the adult hide-and-seek league isn’t funny at all. But it’s about 75% hits rather than misses.

Definitely one to try if you fancy a laugh.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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