'Portlandia' and the Parody of the Self

The second season of Portlandia, IFC's gentle sketch comedy show satirizing the many small lunacies of the bourgeoisie bohemian set, premieres tonight, following a formal premiere event last night at the Museum of Natural History in New York.

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The second season of Portlandia, IFC's gentle sketch comedy show satirizing the many small lunacies of the bourgeoisie bohemian set, premieres tonight, following a formal premiere event last night at the Museum of Natural History in New York. The show informed the party and the party the show, in some sort of meta loop of self-deprecation and self-love.

That sounds bad. Does it sound bad? It's not meant to sound bad, not really. The show is good! The two episodes that screened were clever (at times LOL-worthy!) and oftentimes perfectly on-point. Co-creator Fred Armisen uses the show partly as a platform to further explore what he's only occasionally allowed to on the more amped-up Saturday Night Live: Specifically, he seems very interested in common verbal tics — the way people lower their voices to a stage whisper to criticize someone they like, or the way tone changes when a straight guy goes from talking to a girl to talking to another dude. It's delightfully nuanced, yet weird in its universality, work, and often comes off more winning than the show's bigger parody of its particular demographic. Armisen's co-star (and co-creator and co-writer) Carrie Brownstein also does good character stuff — she's mastered the mellow-yet-neurotic soft speaking style of many a whole grains type — and, though she's heretofore mostly been known as an indie-punk rocker grrl, acquits herself nicely on TV.

Not all the sketches hit — though a song about a wayward sister who "makes jewelry now" is a funny concept, because so many of us know that person who makes jewelry now, for whatever reason it doesn't work in execution. Song comedy is a tricky thing, and most of the sketches with jokey tunes in them fall flat. In general there's an overarching listlessness, or a sloppiness, to the show that makes it feel oddly a little amateur. There's no doubt that Armisen and Brownstein, and their creative team, are talented professionals though, so it seems likely that the actual culprit for this half-bakedness is the subject matter. Sure the tote-carrying, feminist book store-owning, locavore type is a broad and varied one, but it's not that broad or that varied maybe? So Armisen and Brownstein are then forced to scrape a little of the barrel or veer a few degrees thematically off course, and at that point the satire, sometimes so sharp, gets a little dulled. This is to say that Portlandia doesn't seem like a show with a ton of longevity. But that's OK! Let's try to think of this in the British short-burst model. There's a topic ripe for teasing and so Portlandia will do it quickly and then get out. Hopefully.

But meanwhile at the post-screening party, all the pomp and celebration (pomp of the cool dressed-up dressed-down, retro-intellectual museum setting variety), led us to suspect that IFC's got some more long-standing plans for this, the fledgling network's most successful show to date. (By a wide margin, it seems.) The event was an odd sort of conundrum — here are people celebrating a satire of themselves in a way that the show would probably satirize. Sure lots of people there were of a slightly different financial stratum than the denizens of Portlandia — Kristen Wiig and Lorne Michaels and the rest of the Saturday Night Live gang, who seemed almost all in attendance, are sitting prettily enough that the "bohemian" part of the equation sort of falls away. But still there's a stylistic affectation toward that boho life seen in every scruffy beard, every mop-top, every guffaw of recognition. At one point our date for the evening leaned in and said, "Every guy here is wearing the same outfit." And they were. It's the same outfit — button-up Western shirt, tightly tailored jeans — that you'd see in any colonized part of Brooklyn, except everything last night looked expensive.

There's something strange about this particular kind of event, one populated by, for lack of a less ugh-inducing word, hipsters who have suddenly, somehow stumbled into glitz and money. There's a kind of discomfort — everyone last night shifting awkwardly or hugging the walls and trying to simultaneously act not at all impressed with the situation but also humble about it at the same time. It's the exact kind of funny social vibe that Portlandia would make fun of (though the show doesn't traffic solely in hipsters, they're certainly in there), but of course this here was an atmosphere created by Portlandia. That doesn't mean that the show is being hypocritical in its parody, it has a subtly stated love and appreciation for all the silly stuff it makes fun of, but it's just that odd facet of this particularly self-aware culture at work, this tendency to make fun of and call itself silly, or sometimes stupid even, while also only semi-wittingly doing the very same thing.

Perhaps last night's party was actually the final sketch of the evening, a kind of accidental Improv Everywhere involving everyone *important* enough to be invited, but who were also, whatever, just there because it was something to do.

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