Television

How Portlandia’s organic, free-ranging satire makes us laugh at our artisanal pretensions.

By Helen Razer.

Portlandia shines while sketching the truth

Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen ply their sketch comedy trade in Portlandia.
Credit: IFC

In the first episode of the micro-smash Portlandia, a conspicuously progressive couple sits at a locavore restaurant. Before ordering the woodland chicken, they ask about its welfare and are answered by a waitress who displays a World Vision-style photo document of their meal that confirms he enjoyed a good life and was named “Colin”. Not satisfied with data on the bird’s diet, hobbies and provenance, they visit the ultra-organic farm at which Colin was raised before eating him. The joke here relies, as it does throughout much of the sketch comedy series now in its fifth season, on a mild revulsion for the hypocrisy of the liberal Western middle-class consumer. They are a people who can excuse everything, including our animal sacrifice, if it’s sufficiently “artisanal”.

Like anyone of my generation who is a fan of Portlandia, I watch it through my fingers terrified the show will poke expert fun at my heirloom gardening, middle-aged fitness garments or any other of my self-involved fancies. Sometimes, the pain of recognising myself shopping in the feminist bookstore, the conceptual art supplier (where guest street artist Shepard Fairey sells us dismembered dolls and pre-smashed TVs) or the wholefood co-operative is almost too much to bear. But we who see ourselves within it bear it in large numbers.

Portlandia is a world peopled, and enjoyed, by those of us who may have peaked in the ’90s and are reluctant, despite advancing years, to discharge the pleasures of clown school, flannelette shirts and acts of conspicuous compassion. In Portlandia, we are infants unable to own up to the fact of our liberal immorality and we tell ourselves our unique, but ultimately predictable, cultural tastes are Making a Difference. In Portlandia, we hide our ideological similarity from every other consumer on the planet through appreciation of video art, quirky outfits and by demanding at restaurants, “Is it organic? Is it local? Is it artisanal?”

The production of Portlandia is itself artisanal and this may explain, in part, why it is able to take the piss out of a cultural class that tends to take itself very, very seriously. The show owes its handmade feel not only to a low-budget but also to the sensibilities of its stars, Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen. The pair, who each started their entertainment careers in American independent rock bands, shoots on location in Oregon’s Portland – the kind of place where Cool Dads push fixed-gear prams and everyone is a projection artist – to structures that are as improvised as an early Sonic Youth recording. Although tightly edited, it’s loosely made and, as it turns out, enthusiastically received, by a world of ageing hipsters to whom the Mason jar is a sign of well-preserved status. 

“I made these pickles myself!” we cry to the world like a toddler revealing the content of a diaper. We are avaricious, lazy children weaned at the twin toxic teats of self-esteem and individual “choice”. And we are. And Portlandia makes it funny. 

We are able to laugh at the possibility of the Adult Hide-and-Seek League or the Battle of the Gentle Bands, where musicians compete to play their ukuleles with maximum mildness to an audience that seeks cultural barbiturates to deaden the anxiety of emptiness. Our self-conscious Harry Potter-reading whimsy is skewered in a sketch that advertises services for an adult babysitter. Our vulnerability to meaningless trends is lampooned by Jeff Goldblum, the proprietor of a gift store that sells only handmade knots; some of them made by a “very gifted artist” who thrusts iPhone wires in his back pocket to produce “one-of-a-kind pieces” that all look exactly the same.

Our hopeless attachment to signs of progressivism rather than progress itself can be read in the Women and Women First bookstore, where two Proudly Feminist clerks are so enamoured of the purity of their cause they don’t let anyone buy books. Everything here, including activism, is an object for trade in an economy of individualism and everything is hopeless and hopelessly funny. We who love Portlandia are almost always laughing at ourselves. 

Of course, prompting us to laugh at ourselves is the job and often the measure of success of good television comedy. The tolerably good Everybody Loves Raymond and the less bearable Modern Family each offers a critique of our most intimate institutions from within those sites, and are embraced because of it. It is rare that comedy without fond fluency in the language of its characters and audience triumphs; the virtuoso nastiness of Barry Humphries, who hates everyone, is one hilarious exception.

The chance to laugh well with rather than meanly at is one that began to perish in this nation with the last episode of Kath & Kim. This program had warm knowledge of its subjects, and drew its last breath with the first showing of the dreadful Upper Middle Bogan, a program that does nothing but assure its audience that they are so much better than the tacky people onscreen. 

But with Portlandia, we know we are no better. We know we are the sort inclined to police the music our children enjoy and demand raw milk. We know we are the sort devoted to the display and not to the deeds of our own compassion.

Portlandia’s down-at-heel aesthetic and the fact that we, the audience, are being criticised from within our own culture by two of its lo-fi luminaries make such jibes endurable. But it’s testament not just to the “local” provenance of Armisen and Brownstein that they manage to raise a chuckle. It is to their skill as well. Because my generation of middle-class tossers is not one that generally takes well to laughing at itself.

Portland may be the archetype for self-interest in the drag of social awareness, but we can see its reverberations everywhere. On our supermarket shelves, we are promised Fair Trade or Organic or, more lately, Artisanal, and we happily delude ourselves that through these purchases, We Can Make a Difference. Hipster aspiration can be felt in every cafe that promises “single origin” and serves this to us, as though we were refined enough to tell the difference, on uncomfortable retro furniture upcycled from schools. We behave with all the logic of The Child Within we have begun to embrace as we fail to see that it is consumption itself that needs urgent redress and not just a change in our preferred coffee bean. It never occurs to us that the upcycled chairs on which we are sitting were available because the local state school was forced to sell them off as an act of interim survival. We’re just happy that we’re in an artisanal environment where We Can Make a Difference.

Brownstein and Armisen dare to tell us: You Can’t Make a Difference. They have the pluck, and the comic skill, to crap on our naive certainty that “the personal is political” and they remind us that eating a chicken named Colin is really a lot like eating a chicken that has no name. The power of their popular critique reminding us that “aware” consumption may be nothing more than ideology is something that is well past due. 

There are plenty of thinkers who say, in one way or another, what this pair does so ably for one half-hour 10 weeks of the year. But, frankly, it’s much more fun to watch a couple come up with a “safe word” for their sexual experimentation, or the undue pride middle-aged hipsters take in their tattoos, than read long essays about the redux of capitalist ideology by the cultural left.

Portlandia may be made with affection, on a budget and using appealing guest stars such as J Mascis and Miranda July, but it certainly shows our folly. It liberates us, if momentarily, from the lie of liberalism and, as it happens, it might liberate Colin the chicken.

Arts diary

• THEATRE  What Rhymes with Cars & Girls

Melbourne Theatre Company, until March 28

• DANCE  Day for Night

Carriageworks, Sydney, February 20-22

• CIRCUS  A Simple Space: Gravity & Other Myths

Royal Croquet Club, Adelaide, until March 15

• VISUAL ART  ARTEXPRESS 2015

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until April 19

Last chance

• VISUAL ART  Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion 

Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, until tomorrow

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 14, 2015 as "Sketching the truth". Subscribe here.

Helen Razer
is a writer and broadcaster. She is The Saturday Paper’s television critic and gardening columnist.

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