Why Portlandia Doesn’t Work

One of my favorite comedies right now is It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The central characters in it are all utterly horrid examples of humanity- each episode is about their various petty squabbles, arguments, idiotic schemes, jealousies, weaknesses, and manifestations of stupidity. The main cast fights, bickers, make horrible decisions, hurt each other, hurt innocent bystanders, and generally act in a contemptible fashion.

But, because the show is made by some very talented people, I still like them.

Even as the creators of It’s Always Sunny send up their characters as objects of ridicule and mockery, you can tell that they still quite like their characters. As nasty as Mac, Dee, Dennis, and Charlie can be- they still manage to grab a certain amount of my affection. I know that in each episode they will do awful things, but it’s a testament to the skills of the actors, directors, and writers that even as they are objects of farce they are also full, real characters whom I am capable of feeling something for.

Likewise, Alec Baldwin’s character on 30 Rock is oftentimes toweringly evil and self-centered. Jack Donaghy is something like a better-coiffed Dick Cheney in his demeanor and outlook. However, as much as he’s portrayed as a villainous caricature of a certain type of conservative exec, Baldwin & Co. don’t forget that for us to keep coming back to 30 Rock, there has to be some humanity there. As much as I’d loathe Jack Donaghy in real life, he remains a real person worthy of empathy in addition to being a figure of fun.

The deft injection of affection and empathy into farce and satire- the streak of love that runs through ridiculous and mean humor- that is what’s missing from Portlandia. That absence of underlying reality- that the people on screen should be people in addition to jokes- is why the show will probably fail.

I’ve only seen the first episode and a few of the promo shorts, but what I’ve encountered so far is not inspiring, and so far I have a certain loathing for the show. This is not because Portlandia is insulting my hometown- quite the contrary, I would love it if we had our own version of Northern Exposure. The problem is that Portlandia doesn’t lampoon this place especially well.

The first episode starts with a clip that’s been going around quite a bit, a song about how “the dream of the 90s is alive in Portland.” You’ve probably seen it already, but here it is:

As far as a big opening number, this doesn’t work at all. Fred Armisen was born in the sixties, and Carrie Brownstein in the seventies. Both of them were in the twenties and thirties in the nineties, and, presumably, enjoying what the youth culture of the time provided. They seem flabbergasted, in the opening song, that some amount of youth culture is still extant, like an old hippie amazed that young people still listen to Led Zepplin.

Yes, current hipster/alternative culture grew out of nineties grunge. Which reacted to, and grew out of eighties new wave and hair metal. Which sprang from seventies punk-rock. Which owed a lot to hippie music from the sixties. Who were preceded by greasers in the fifties. Who in turn were preceded by beatniks in the forties.

Arguing that any kind of youth/pop/alternative/creative culture is similar to what preceded it is facile, annoying, and utterly non-funny. The best humor is smart, and hits upon unthought-of truths. When one says of a comedian “he’s saying what we’re all thinking!” we’re talking of comedy’s ability to express what was known, but never voiced. Portlandia‘s introductory song expresses the obvious and holds it up as if it’s some kind of profundity.

That was only the opener, though. Sitting down to watch the first episode, I hoped that there would be something more inspiring, something that would actually, you know, make me laugh, something that would make me go “yeah, that is true,” and nod in amused recognition.

This did not happen. The sketches seem clunky and joyless, and the whole show occupies a kind of forced, airless space. Not even a Steve Buscemi cameo was able to inject some life into the proceedings.

The central problem was that throughout the episode none of the characters portrayed by Armisen or Brownstein seemed to be real people. I had no sense of connection whatsoever with any of the people whom they portrayed. This is not because they were playing idiots- the crew from It’s Always Sunny have roundly proved that one can play an idiot and still connect with the audience- it was because they seemed uninterested in injecting humanity into their characters. (While on the subject of sketch comedy- there’s more drama, feeling and reality in a single College Humor sketch than any single section of Portlandia. The CH crew also prove that you can mercilessly mock your characters and still get the audience to like them.)

I do want this show to do well. I want it to dramatically improve, take on some new talent, and become a kick-ass sketch comedy show that makes me laugh. I want to hear jokes about how everyone has food allergies, wears stupid hats, has weird facial hair, and eats doughnuts that have bacon on them. My hometown is, I admit, filled with things that can be hilariously mocked.

But I want them mocked well, and with a little bit of love, and joy, and fun. I want to smile while I see my tattooed neighbors insulted. So far, prospects don’t look good.

7 Responses to Why Portlandia Doesn’t Work

  1. Aw, I didn't think it was that bad. I loathed the opener, when I saw it as a preview, and I still do. Unfunny and a little mean. It made me dread the show.

    But the primary sketch, with the couple checking out their chicken dinner's photo and bio, and then finding the cult in the woods where he was raised… it got me. It was sweet, and fun. But the feminist bookstore sketch? Not funny, not even with the cameo. Dull, and you're right, lacking empathy for those portrayed.

    And I see this in Brownstein's media blitz for the show as well– honestly, when she talks about it, it doesn't seem like she *likes* Portland much. In spite of being a local girl, she seems to feel like an outsider here; the writing points and laughs at *them,* rather than chuckling at *herself.* And it's a failing so far. But I think there's hope.

  2. You've teased out the central reason why the show is terrible and articulated it perfectly here. Bravo! Plus, I like it when you agree with me.

  3. you nailed it- that is exactly what was wrong with the show.

    But why the tattoo hate? There are things about Portland culture which deserve more attention.

  4. Oh, thanks! I don't actually hate tattoos at all, but like anything else there are a lot of bad ones. If I were to ever get one, I'd be sure that it was something meaningful and interesting.

  5. Portlandia opening song is like a stroll down Alberta on Last Thursday. I thought it made a great over the edge, spoof of Portland. Portland is my favorite place to live but I do see the proud absurdity that sometimes arise. Where else are naked bike rides so proudly participated? Perhaps it's our painted displays of our local, motto "Keep Portland Weird" that we take all things weird or absurd with pride, no matter what the details are.

  6. Not to mention what the very bad "art" that are rampant on Last Thursdays. Having said that, I love Last Thursday and goes to patron the restaurants and street vendors. But, really… some of of that stuff people try to sell as "art", "locally made" are pretty junky.

  7. It was utter crap, i lived in pdx all my life, these so-called hipsters are trustfund douchebags who pretend to be from the streets caus they wear second hand clothing. now these hollywood douchebags are trying to make a profit from it. real people from portland despiose all of you, you are ruinging our city, your not hip, your a bunch or rich preppy trend setting turds, go away.

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