'Portlandia' Review: Sketch Comedy Targets Liberal Culture with Good Natured Style

Because of Hollywood’s default liberal culture, it’s almost impossible to watch comedy that has any social or political relevance that doesn’t go squarely after conservative targets with gleeful and mean-spirited offensiveness. For the most part, conservative comedy lovers would just do well to fasten their seat belts and get ready for the bumpy ride, because attack comedy on right-wing targets is just part of the territory.

But does it have to be that way? Imagine a sketch comedy show that pokes fun at clueless liberal mayors, politically correct feminists, and entitled hipster butt-inskys. Sound impossible in today’s climate? Surprisingly, the most politically incorrect comedy show out there right now might just be IFC’s “Portlandia.” All six episodes of the first season of the show are currently available for streaming on Netflix, and the second season starts January 21st on IFC.

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“Portlandia” is the brainchild of “Saturday Night Live”‘s Fred Armisen and musician Carrie Brownstein. It’s a half-hour show set entirely in the left-wing magnet city of Portland, Oregon. In the very first episode, they say that Portland is a city where the 1990s never ended (it’s “a place where young people go to retire”) and sure enough, Armisen and Brownstein have created a cast of Portland-based characters with the requisite tribal piercings, chin beards, and indigenous pantsuits.

Make no mistake — this isn’t a show created by conservatives. It’s clear that Armisen and Brownstein love Portland for all its ’90s grungy counter-culture, but they also understand how goofy it is and they aren’t afraid to goof on it. The result is a show full of sketches that skew liberal icons in a good-natured way. The show makes a few sexual references throughout the episodes and a bit of cursing so if you’re a parent, you might watch to decide if it’s adults only. You get a high dose of snark without the bitter aftertaste. The closest they come to a right-wing attack is saying “it’s like the Bush administration never happened.”

Armisen is a fairly known quantity from his work on “SNL,” but the sketches on “Portlandia” are much better — they play with a more experimental palette and don’t have to fit into the familiar SNL frameworks of fake TV game shows or recurring characters doing the same catchphrase week after week. The looser format of “Portlandia” allows Armisen to spread his wings beyond his uninspired Barack Obama impersonation and show his smarter, geekier and goofier side.

The show’s revelation is Carrie Brownstein, formally with the Pacific Northwest riot grrl band Sleater Kinney and now fronting a new band called Wild Flags. I’d never seen Brownstein act before, and she immediately became one of my favorite sketch comedy actresses. She’s able to pull off characters ranging from dour woman’s studies types, self-important activists and overly happy hippies. She even does a couple of gender bending bits. She has a smile that lights up the screen and, as one of the show’s four credited writers, she seems to be inhabiting characters she knows well.

Even though I’m guessing that neither Armisen or Brownstein would be caught dead voting Republican, the comedy premises of “Portlandia” could have been written by a conservative cultural commentator pointing out the hypocrisies and foibles of the modern liberal. Rather than try to describe the sketches, just take a look for yourself.

Here, a couple of literary name-droppers compete to see who’s more well read:

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A type of political commercial we’ve seen a million times offers a unique plan to end unemployment:

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And a feminist bookstore owner lusts after a girl who just wants to write about how awesome her boyfriend Chad is:

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Given the choice between getting silly and going for the jugular, the good-natured “Portlandia” always veers towards the absurd, and that’s one of the show’s many virtues. It manages to make some points about human nature without getting preachy or forgetting that comedy should be entertaining. The show’s guest appearances like Heather Graham, Steve Buscemi, Aimee Mann, and the wacked out Portland mayor played by Kyle MacLachlan add a surprise to every episode.

“Portlandia” is sure to make some people want to move to Oregon right away and sure to make other people avoid it like the plague. However you feel, if you like quick sketch comedy that doesn’t go after the usual targets, you’ll enjoy your visit to “Portlandia.”