Portlandia debuts tonight on IFC at 10:30 p.m. Eastern.
"Portland is a city where young people go to retire!" So says longtime SNL player Fred Armisen at the top of his new half-hour sketch show Portlandia for IFC. Co-star Carrie Brownstein (of Sleater-Kinney fame) is initially skeptical, but after a rousing musical number featuring an assortment of counterculture types, she quickly gives in and dons some facial piercings and what could be one of Janeane Garofalo's outfits from The Ben Stiller Show era. The message is clear: Who can resist the siren song of Stumptown? Especially when it's a literal song?
It's little wonder IFC executives ponied up for this show: Sure, Fred Armisen has the improvisatory chops, a grab-bag of impressions, and a solid foil in Carrie Brownstein, but the pair's excellent proto-Portlandia videos under the ThunderAnt moniker had something else going for them too. They played to our current, slightly bewildering fascination/disgust with the mythical "hipster." Now, it's true that most of the ThunderAnt videos are about folks too far out on the fringe to worry about looking cool, and it's true that most of the characters who populate the first episode of Portlandia don't fit neatly in that box, but in fairness, it's a pretty loose categorization in the first place. And the pilot episode's sketch centered around an adult hide-and-seek league and the sullen fashionplates strutting through the intro make it pretty clear where some of the show's satirical ammo will be spent.
Fortunately, the cold open is a little bit of a bait-and-switch, and the sketches are generally more concerned with skewering hippy-fied yuppie types than with mocking the self-satisfied cool. After a washed-out opening credits sequence set to Washed Out's "Feel It All Around," the show introduces its first throughline sketch. Like Tim & Eric Awesome Show Great Job!, stand-alone sketches serve as buffers between the acts of the main story arc—which in this case involves a pair of organically obsessed, local food champions hemming and hawing over whether to order the chicken until finally they decide to get some firsthand knowledge about its origins. The sketch ultimately delivers the episode's biggest laughs (courtesy of guest-star and comedy utility-man Jason Sudeikis), but it takes its time in doing so.
And so goes the rest of the episode, which might require a slight recalibration of your comedy metabolism to make enjoyable. ThunderAnt sketches that worked online—like the feminist bookstore bit, which is reprised here—have a tendency to feel drawn-out and joke-light in their TV incarnations, Steve Buscemi appearance notwithstanding. Part of that is down to the crapshoot that is improvisation, which this show is presumably going to feature a lot of. But part of it I can't help but chalk up to Armisen reigning himself in, in an attempt to give individual sketches more of an arc. ThunderAnt can get away with filming what's essentially a funny list, but Portlandia has a higher bar to clear.
Doubling back to Tim & Eric for a moment, Jonathan Krisel (sometime co-writer and director of Awesome Show) and Doug Lussenhop (jizz-biz photographer turned video-editor turned DJ Douggpound) brought their talents to bear on the episode, lending a few moments a decidedly Awesome Show-like vibe. That program's frappé of absurdity and horror doesn't feel like quite the right fit for Armisen and Brownstein, so it's probably all to the good that the creepy zooms and vocal distortions disappear by the second episode.
Having seen that superior second episode, I think the show was struggling to find its footing here with a few excellent moments in otherwise slow-to-start sketches. That's the thing about transitioning from the Web to TV: Whether you're Funny or Die Presents or Portlandia, a weak online video is easily x'ed out of, but on television, a couple clunkers strung together can drag the whole episode down. Keeping the quality of sketches consistent will likely be Portlandia's bugbear. I don't mean to overstate the negatives of tonight's episode, though. Armisen and Brownstein are canny at picking their targets, and in the Mind-Fi sketch, which goofily lampoons 21st century multi-tasking run amok, and in the crackerjack ending to the chicken sketch, they hint at the standout material to come. If Portland really is the promised land of milk and honey, then Armisen and Brownstein are the Israelite spies who report back that it's also full of giant assholes.
- That's a very Nicholas Fehn "and-and-and" that Armisen does in the restaurant scene.
- "It keeps my skin nice and dry. It tastes like soot and hot water."
- "S.E.E.K. See Every Every Kind—of spot"
- Jason Mantzoukas, improviser extraordinaire, was a consulting producer. Dude is everywhere lately.
- Greatest last words: "You're being a dumb bitch."