Dear Netflix: ‘Portlandia’ finds subtlety, satire, surprising success

Just in time for Sleater-Kinney in Columbia, Columnist Elana Williams explores guitar/vocalist Carrie Brownstein (and Fred Armisen)’s acting/writing creds.

Dear Netflix,

I had heard lots of fairy tales about the Pacific Northwest before watching “Portlandia.” It’s a land of locally-grown everything, you can’t find a McDonald’s there, they ride bikes everywhere … you get the picture.

Sounds a lot like parts of Columbia, right? Walk two feet into Lucky’s Market and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Hell, move here from anywhere in the Midwest and you’ll know what I’m talking about. They actually have bike lanes here!

“Portlandia” is one of those sketch comedy shows, a genre I’m not usually the biggest fan of.

Sure, I watched Saturday Night Live like any good teenager, but I could see it quickly losing traction. SNL’s problem is this: In a culture evolving more and more toward ‘in-your-face’ comedy, the inherent satire of sketch shows doesn’t mesh. SNL tried really hard to become brash, and it’s failing miserably.

“Portlandia,” written and created by SNL alum Fred Armisen (irony? politics?) and Sleater-Kinney member Carrie Brownstein, succeeds in embracing the subtlety that is sketch.

After all, how can you make fun of a crazy-liberal hippie-sphere and make them love it? Do the opposite of what big media does.

The show, if you’ve never seen it, features characters we’ve all seen around town.

There’s the bike activist who rides like a mad man and creates bike lanes where there are none. All the while, he spurts Oregon state law about bikers’ rights.

Then there are the crazy feminist bookstore owners, both women played by Brownstein and Armisen. In one scene, a man uses the bathroom (for paying customers only), and is then forced by the women to buy something.

Of course, when he tries to give them money and leave without change, one of the women says, “This is not a back alley hooker-pimp transaction.” The man asks if he looks like a pimp. (It’s Steve Buscemi, BTW). “When a man pulls out money away from a register, I have to wonder,” she retorts back.

This is the kind of dialogue that makes “Portlandia” golden. It doesn’t try to be a “laugh out loud” show. It simply tries to show us what we really look like.

Did I mention the whole scene takes place in the actual bookstore it was inspired by in Portland? The town’s mayor makes cameos as well, as the mayor’s assistant in “Portlandia.”

So which character are you, dear reader?

The couple who needs to know how many acres the chicken they’re eating had to roam on before he died?

The one modge-podging silhouettes of birds onto everything to make it more “artsy”?

Its success stems from the writing, but it’d be unfair not to credit Armisen and Brownstein’s stellar acting performances, as well.

According to an article in The New Yorker, the two started off as friends. Armisen was a former punk band member and Brownstein a current one, so naturally, it was grunge at first sight.

A collaboration was inevitable, and the friendship between the two is only a multiplier when it comes to “Portlandia.” Something strange happens when a completely platonic couple plays a very romantic one: comedy genius. Their ranges, though, is what is truly stunning.

Brownstein had done little acting and no writing before “Portlandia,” and even in the first few episodes, is obviously 100 percent comfortable with the incredibly uncomfortable circumstances the sketch puts her in.

“Portlandia” is our home, Columbians. Embrace it. Find yourself in it. Find the people you hate. We’re all there. In this magical Netflix land that simultaneously exists in Oregon and Missouri.

Art is a mirror, Netflix.

Love, Elana

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