Paul Asay

TV Series Review

You’ve got your standard television sitcom. You’ve got your rare sketch comedy. And then you’ve got Portlandia.

Portlandia is a reality all its own—a curious land of sketch comedy located in the faraway province called Independent Film Channel. Its only full-time residents are Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, a couple of comedians who’ve been working together since 2003. At first they merely lived in Portland, Ore. But as their sketches ever more reliably skewered the city and its oh-so-trendy hipster vibe, a new kingdom was born on television—a place populated by feminist bookstore owners and picky diners, of naive businesspeople and not-so-radical ecoterrorists.

So while the population of Portlandia is small, it draws a surprisingly loyal band of tourists to IFC every week.

The modern embodiment of a cult television show, this series has unearthed mounds of mainstream accolades, from a Peabody Award in 2011, to a bevy of Emmy nominations (and a couple of wins for costume design), to a shout-out from Jerry Seinfeld. “I think that’s the best comedy on TV right now, and it’s easily one of the best comedies of all time,” the respected comedian told Vulture in 2014.

Paradoxically, though, that’s what makes Portlandia a bit frustrating.

This sketch comedy is funny. Its satire of West Coast culture is cogent, yet strangely gentle. And Armisen and Brownstein don’t even always rely on graphic innuendo or foul language to get their laughs. But if the first three sketches in an episode keep things Abbot-and-Costello-level family friendly, the fourth will feature a litany of curses (some of them bleeped) or a graphic sexual aside, joke or situation (gay or straight or even other). And all of a sudden the fun, half-hour romp turns sour.

Portlandia might’ve come closest to mainstream fame with its “Put a Bird on It” sketch, wherein a couple of well-meaning entrepreneurs walk around a boutique and slap images of birds on things. Birds, these altruistic busybodies believe, make everything better.

Portlandia itself sometimes doesn’t even need a bird. But at others, not even that fair feathered friend can save it.

Episode Reviews

Portlandia: 1-29-2015


In the episode’s central sketch, Portland’s quartet of ecoterrorists (including Olivia Wilde as Britt) wants to protest Japanese whaling boats. Alas, they’re told they’d have to go to Antarctica to do so. “We could explore the idea of protesting somewhere warmer,” Britt suggests, and pretty soon they settle on San Diego’s SeaWorld. But the charms of the city prove distracting and, after nearly getting roped into a SeaWorld-owned timeshare by Jeff Goldblum, the now trio of ecoterrorists (Britt opts to stay with Jeff) go to SeaWorld and rescue a (seemingly dead) fish.

SeaWorld employees offer to sell the ecoterrorists tickets to their “Orcasmic Experience.” Several bikini-clad women are seen frolicking in San Diego. Portland’s mayor has his face Photoshopped onto a postcard depicting the famous painting “Liberty Leading the People,” which depicts a bare-breasted woman. Jeff and Britt clutch and caress each other. Two goth types discuss how they’d like to be buried; one wants her body to be dragged by jackals. We see a fake commercial for “dead pets.” An ecoterrorist gets drunk on margaritas, and the foursome is served wine at a party. Two apparent f-words are bleeped. We hear uncensored uses of “a–,” “b–tard” and God’s name, along with a “jeez.”

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Paul Asay
Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

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