The dream of the ’90s alive and well in ‘Portlandia’

Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein star in “Portlandia.’’ Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein star in “Portlandia.’’ (Scott Green/IFC)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / January 21, 2011

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"Portlandia’’ is a special sketch comedy series. It affectionately mines Portland, Ore., and the Portland state of mind, for sly cultural humor. The Pacific Northwest city, somehow already a relic of 1990s alternative slackerism, takes it lightly on its pierced noggin for angry bike messengers, for its artisanal obsessions, for competing with Seattle, and, of course, for flannel.

The six-episode series, which premieres tonight at 10:30 on IFC, is the brainchild of Fred Armisen from “Saturday Night Live’’ and Carrie Brownstein, formerly a singer-guitarist in the Portland band Sleater-Kinney now trying her hand — quite successfully — at comedy. In a way, “Portlandia’’ does to Portland what NBC’s “Parks and Recreation’’ does to small-town Indiana; it gives us a little population of local misfits, then teases them for their exaggerated provincial affectations. But almost all of the “Portlandia’’ characters are played by Armisen and Brownstein, and each half-hour is broken up into snippets of story line, some recurring. It’s not a sitcom so much as an urban portrait.

When I first heard that the show stars Armisen and that it is executive produced by Lorne Michaels, Armisen’s “Saturday Night Live’’ boss, I was afraid I’d find merely bottom-drawer “SNL’’ filler. But “Portlandia’’ is more subtle and less bombastic than most of the sketch work on “SNL,’’ and without a live audience it is calmer in tone. The guest stars, including, tonight, Steve Buscemi and Jason Sudeikis, slip quietly into and out of the scenes. Next week’s episode features the hysterically deadpan Aubrey Plaza from “Parks and Recreation’’ and Kyle MacLachlan as the mayor of Portland, fixated on being better than Seattle (real mayor Sam Adams cameos as his assistant).

Among the recurring characters created by Armisen and Brownstein are two women, Candice and Toni, who own a feminist bookstore called Women and Women First. They’re belligerent toward their customers, self-righteously withholding their merchandise in what winds up being an amusing case of self-sabotage. In another sketch, a couple having dinner at a restaurant ask the waitress questions about their free-range chicken, which escalates to the point where they are compelled to go to the farm where “Colin’’ — that’s the chicken’s name — was raised.

And in what has become the show’s calling card online, tonight’s episode includes a video of a song about how “the dream of the ’90s is alive in Portland.’’ The lyrics portray a pre-George W. Bush world where “young people go to retire,’’ “the tattoo ink never runs dry,’’ and “all the hot girls wear glasses.’’ Like so much of “Portlandia,’’ it’s a pitch-perfect satire of a city that time forgot.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at


Starring: Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein


Time: Tonight, 10:30-11 p.m.