Portlandia: Hoot from the hip

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HEROES: Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein play all the characters in Portlandia's, a satirical comedy which pokes fun at Portland's alternative subculture. Photo / Chris Hornbecker
HEROES: Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein play all the characters in Portlandia's, a satirical comedy which pokes fun at Portland's alternative subculture. Photo / Chris Hornbecker

Portlandia almost does for Oregon what Kath & Kim did for suburban Australia. A parody of Portland's strong alternative subculture, its characters are universally familiar. I say almost, because although it's gaining cult status overseas, for the past two weeks the sketch show has flown under the radar here, screening on TV3 at 10pm on Fridays, a time when those it's satirising are out and about, apparently cycling between vegan restaurants and punk gigs. Oh well. In-the-know Kiwi fans have probably already seen this on the net anyway.

Written and starring Fred Armisen (SNL comic and former drummer for the hardcore band Trenchmouth) and Wild Flag co-frontwoman Carrie Brownstein (formerly guitarist and singer with indie-rock band Sleater-Kinney), Portlandia is an exaggerated version of the real city's artsy-liberal types. The show posits that Portland is such a nice place to live that its denizens resort to picking ridiculous battles. There's the precious greenie couple who, while dining at a Portland restaurant, demand to know of the organic chicken's origins, whether it had chicken friends.

It's a "heritage-breed, woodland-raised chicken that's been fed a diet of sheep's milk, soy, and hazelnuts", obliges the waitress, producing Colin the chicken's papers. The couple still aren't satisfied. For their meal to be truly virtuous, they must visit the farm it grew up on. That's the kind of humour you could transplant directly to Ponsonby.

Then the show gets absurdly funny: the bird's homestead is run by a magnetic cult leader (Jason Sudeikis) who asks the diners to become his new wives; the couple return to the restaurant five years later for the salmon. Armisen and Brownstein also play angry feminist bookstore managers, righteous animal lovers and "dumpster divers" who'd rather eat from a rubbish heap than go to the supermarket.

Can a couple of ex-musos who clearly know the world they're sending up be funny? Well, most of the time. With the help of wigs and shoestring props - masking tape, bubblewrap and tracksuits all feature - the pair play all the show's characters, even when it means swapping genders. For a rock star who doesn't employ irony in her music, Brownstein brings new meaning to the term "knowing humour". So does Armisen, the goofier of the two, particularly as an aggressive bicycle-activist with holes in his ears so large he gets caught on the chain that locks his front door.

In the pilot episode they even break into song, a la Flight of the Conchords - and is it just me or does Armisen look a bit like Jemaine? The song's about the city's ability to keep "the dream of the 90s alive" which we later discover means indulging in childish games, such as in a grown-ups, tournament version of hide 'n' seek. A bit of a private joke among Portlanders, perhaps, but you get the idea.

Those who've never been there might be inclined to think it's a pretentious place where everyone drinks tea for their tear ducts and makes shell art. But with its dreamy soundtrack and attractive cinematography, the show manages to make it look like a cool place to visit. It also has a great guest cast that includes Kyle MacLachlan as the Mayor (the real Mayor plays his assistant), Steve Buscemi as a hapless bookstore customer, musicians Aimee Mann and Sarah MacLachlan, and in later episodes, Heather Graham, Selma Blair, Johnny Marr, Joanna Newsom and Eddie Vedder.

A few international critics reckon Portlandia belongs to the internet-spawned trend of "hipster-bashing", society's way of taking the self-conscious, try-hard, earnest coolies down a notch. It definitely does that. But like the ladies of Fountain Lakes, it's an affectionate ribbing. Whether you're from Oregon or Auckland, if you recognise yourself you'll probably laugh.

- NZ Herald

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