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Sketch Comedy From the Crunchy Fringe
January 6, 2012  | By Eric Gould
 
Portlandia-Toni-Candice-IFC.jpg

Portlandia isn't a show that bursts with big laughs or lurches into irreverent turns. It's more like watching nerdy kids spinning goofy improv in theater class. And that feel is due in part to its locale -- it's all shot in Portland, Oregon, the fertile left coast that sprouts the hyper-moral, alt-eco-culture quirks the show thrives on satirizing.

Returning for its second season Friday night at 10 ET on IFC, this half-hour of loosely connected vignettes in different locations across the city is the brainchild of Saturday Night Live cast member Fred Armisen, rock veteran Carrie Brownstein and director Jonathan Krisel.

Armisen, well known for his SNL impressions of half-blind New York Governor David Paterson and the dead but chatty Muammar Gaddafi, is the ringleader here. He delivers with quick instincts earned from 10 years under the gun in live TV.

Brownstein, a member of the defunct Sleater-Kinney band and a sometime writer, actress and resident of Portland, has a shorter resume. But she's an energetic co-conspirator with an impish, feral grin. She and Armisen have developed a good stable of crunchy Portland characters who are as PC as they are judgmental and bossy.

Portlandia-IFC-Armisen-Spyke.jpg

The better of these include Toni and Candice [photo at top], the self-important yet profitless owners of a feminist bookshop, and Spyke and Iris [photo at right], a clueless alt-couple hellbent on any scrap of trendy nonconformism they can latch onto -- as idiotic as their understanding may be.

After the friendship between Armisen and Brownstein blossomed about 10 years ago, they began producing their own low-budget internet comedy serial, Thunderant, in 2005. It was so successful that Armisen's boss, Lorne Michaels, executive producer of SNL and head of Broadway Video, agreed last year to co-produce Portlandia with the Independent Film Channel.

("Portlandia" comes from the name of a public statue outside the city's renowned Municipal Services Building, though the title here signifies the city's counterculture.)

IFC's tag-line -- "Always on. Slightly off" -- is apt for its stable of comedy shows approaching sketch routines from a purposefully fringe slant. These have included the recently finished five-year run of The Whitest Kids U Know, a wild but flawed half-hour that daringly crossed into some jaw-dropping territory, but flopped more often trying to be outrageous.

This year, IFC runs Portlandia alongside The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret (also starting its second IFC season, Friday at 10:30 p.m. ET). Often clever, Todd Margaret suffers frequent jags into juvenile scatology. (Although I still want to know how David Cross's London exploits turn out.) Portlandia gamely keeps it above the belt, wandering into genteel Allergy Pride Parades [photo at bottom] and the faux-epicurean distinctions between regular bartenders and hipster "mixologists."

Portlandia-Jeff-Goldblum-IFC.jpg

This season's first three shows feature an eclectic stable of guest stars, including Jeff Goldblum [photo at right], Edward James Olmos, Eddie Vedder and SNL cast member Andy Samberg. Penny Marshall and Tim Robbins are on-deck for later.

It shows that Armisen and Brownstein are close friends, often working 60 hours a week on the show, and then making more time to hang out afterwards. Their world of Portlandia is an earnest one of likable but talkative neurotic characters who peck and pester away, eventually circling down to their everyday truths.

Not everything in Portlandia works. Some of the sketches are slow to launch. Others feel like SNL leftovers. And the season premiere episode is weaker than the following two, which show deeper range.

But there's something authentic and charming about the Armisen-Brownstein team, and their affection for the city and their oddball characters.

That's the winning part of the formula. Toni and Candice and the others are smarmy, clearly out of touch, almost off the edge, way out there in Portlandia -- but they're loved by their performers, and stand on ground firm enough for us to follow along.

Portlandia-Allergy-Pride-IFC.jpg

 

3 Comments

Mara said:

If you think the premiere is weaker than the following two episodes, then I can't wait for those! There were some weak spots in the premiere, but I laughed out loud many times--Toni and Candace with the air-conditioning repairman being one. I think this show is much funnier than SNL has been lately, and I find the two leads so utterly charming, that I am happy to follow them into any of their weird and wonderful characters. Even though some of those characters are "smarmy" and "out of touch", I also find them completely recognizable and hilarious in their familiarity.

Comment posted on January 7, 2012 1:37 PM


EricG said:

Mara - Yes! -- the second and third shows for this season are very good, and the Armisen-Brownstein team is fun. Committed comics, when they strike something, they go all the way. And they're quite smart with the little treasures they find. They won't let you down.

Comment posted on January 7, 2012 6:19 PM


Vance said:

I think the show is very close to Kids in the Hall territory and could, with enough time, reach toward the Mont Python universe....the magic is there. Satire this good only comes around once every couple of decades. You can pickle that!

Comment posted on January 7, 2012 8:19 PM
 
 
 
 
 
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