Keep "Portlandia" Weird

Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein's Oregonian quirk-fest makes a welcome return Friday.

By Jere Hester
|  Friday, Jan 4, 2013  |  Updated 6:35 AM EDT
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In a memorable segment from last year's often-hilarious run of "Portlandia," stars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein played a couple obsessed with a show even more far out than their trippy Oregonian surroundings: "Battlestar Galactica."

Unable to accept the end of the space drama's revival, the duo hunted for the series' writer and enlisted star Edward James Olmos in a bid to mount just one more episode.

No such challenges, thankfully, exist with "Portlandia," a comic quirk-fest that has earned a strong, if appropriately mellower following than "Battlestar." Armisen and Brownstein's multi-character sketch program makes a welcome return to IFC Friday, kicking off its third season.

For the uninitiated, “Portlandia” is an ironic love letter to a city that, by Armisen and Brownstein’s rendering, wallows in hipsterish detached irony. Their Portland is rife with all kinds of obsessions, most far more local than “Battlestar”: Food (brunch is a contact sport and pasta addiction is a disease), creativity (nautical knots and painting a bird on any object represent high art) and progressivism  (the Women & Women First feminist bookstore and the annual Allergy Pride Parade are community staples).  

The biggest obsession in town, though, is self-obsession – ably portrayed by Armisen and Brownstein, selfless performers who seamlessly morph from character to character. The duo’s success rests not only in their ample chemistry, but in their knack for gently poking fun at the hopelessly hip, self-righteous and PC without a hint of cruelty.  Armisen and Brownstein clearly hold considerable affection for the aggressively earnest. The stakes are low in their Portlandia, but the comic payoff is high.
 
“Portlandia” is more than a two-person effort. Kyle MacLachlan, who helped pioneer Northwestern TV quirk two decades ago on the decidedly darker "Twin Peaks," plays a recurring role as Portland’s bike-peddling, kayak-paddling mayor. Brownstein’s background as a musician helped the show gain indie cred and draw guests like Aimee Mann, St. Vincent and Eddie Vedder (who appeared in person and as a talking tattoo). Armisen recruited “Saturday Night Live” colleagues Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis, Andy Samberg and Bobby Moynihan for funny spots.
 
Like “SNL,” the show is produced by Lorne Michaels. But in some respects, “Portlandia” is more reminiscent of another Michaels production, the Canada-based “The Kids in the Hall,” which ended its primary run nearly two decades ago. Both sketch shows offer amusingly absurd looks at small-time oddballs who suffer from northern exposure.

Armisen and Brownstein’s city is proud of its eccentric reputation, as evidenced by the “Keep Portland Weird” sign seen in opening credits of “Portlandia.” The show gleefully celebrates the strangeness of a metropolis that’s a planet unto itself – one never visited on “Battlestar Galactica.” Check out a Season 3 preview below:

 

 

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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