“ Portlandia ” has everything it takes to become a cult series: indie stars turned actors, cameos that can stand up to the backstage of the most prestigious festival, and, especially, an iconoclastic sense of humour that turns everything upside down. Hipsters, bands, DJs, ecologists, and social network addicts are only some of Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen’s targets. They are the two brains behind one of the most appealing series in many years, which seems to be coming to an end: after finishing its second season last week, rumours are flying that it might not run for another year. So here we have a cult piece that will continue to grow with the passing of time; and we will henceforth be forced to watch it on DVD. Aren’t you familiar with this series? Well, here are five reasons to discover and love “Portlandia”.
1. Carrie Brownstein
Who could imagine that the guitarist and singer from bands like Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag could also be an appealing actress and a script-writer with a sense of humour? Carrie takes advantage of her experience to laugh at the music world without beating about the bush: music festivals, posers, pretentious groups, and other fauna do not escape the series’ biting wit. There is Aimee Mann playing a cleaning woman when she is faced with dropping record sales, or that Pitchfork office that has to close when he finally gives a group the sought-after 10.
That’s not the only thing: she takes all of the ink that’s been spilled about her sexual proclivities with a sense of humour and cross-dresses as a man in some of the best gags, playing a boyfriend whose uptight girlfriend drives him crazy.
2. Fred Armisen
Without a doubt, this is the discovery for those of us who don’t have access to Saturday Night Life. The collaborator on the popular programme has found his perfect humour match in Brownstein. He grew up obsessed with Devo and has played the drums with Trenchmouth and Les Savy Fav. He might play Brownstein’s sugary girlfriend or a concerned father. His star character, without a doubt, is Toni; one of the owners of a feminist book shop (Women And Women First) who uses inclusive language all of the time and, like her partner Candice (Carrie again), is offended when she is called “sweetie” and believes, literally, that “every time you point we see penises ”. Priceless.
3. “I’m not modern…”
“…I was made like this”, some of the characters on “Portlandia” might say. A hipster who despairs when a preppy decides to frequent a favourite coffee shop, friends who get into brawls to see who read the obscure article from the coolest publication first, the couple who seem to have spent hours browsing on Etsy and Pinterest and decide to decorate everything with birds . . . No one escapes, not even the police department, whose new uniforms fall into Brownstein and Armisen’s clutches: they get some priceless looks - like in “Blade Runner” - but totally impossible to wear while patrolling the streets. Like good modern folk, they drink cocktails and complain about anyone DJ-ing, and they film boring art and experimental films that even Gus Van Sant couldn’t bear. At some point, gags about Instagram should have turned up, because not even Facebook or the iPhone have escaped.
The list of cameos is long and brilliant: Kyle MacLachlan as mayor, Steve Buscemi, Joanna Newsom, Aimee Mann, Eddie Vedder, Colin Meloy, Corin Tucker, James Mercer, Miranda July, and so on. Seldom is there an episode without any celebrity appearances; but you have to keep your eyes open, because they don’t usually play themselves.
Among the exceptions we have Eddie Vedder (who stars in a funny gag in which Carrie decides to break up with her boyfriend because she can’t stand the Pearl Jam singer’s tattoo) and Colin Meloy, who attends a festival that is so indie that in the hotel he is given a record player instead of the classic soap and shampoo.
All of the people who agree to participate in the series partly do it to laugh at themselves: there is Kyle MacLachlan as the mayor obsessed with his city being differentiated from Seattle, or Joanna Newsom, desperate because her friends are unable to get her harp into the boot of the car without destroying it.
5. Culture will set you free…
Or not, because the references in “Portlandia” range from popular culture to more intellectual films, publications like Mother Jones, social movements, unconditional love of cats, second-hand clothing shops . . . Any excuse is good enough when it comes to laughing at cultural totems. There’s the postman who has to go door to door until he gets someone to watch “Nosferatu”, the couple who lose their jobs because they get hooked on “Battlestar Galactica”, or the parents obsessed with their children’s culture. The sketch in which Brownstein and Armisen face off with a nursery school teacher because she forces their child to listen to Kraftwerk, brings out not only guffaws - but also empathy. Even something as apparently simple as the opening song becomes another reference; they use Washed Out’s “I Feel It All Around”.
“Portlandia” is full of those little biting (and of course ironic) jokes that are just begging to be seen … and commented on over and over again.