Portlandia on Netflix

As someone who has been called a hipster quite a number of times without really knowing why, I thought it was about time I addressed the hype.

I am a huge fan of the show Portlandia on IFC, which unashamedly attempts to roast the heck out of “hipsters” in modern culture. I believe the reason it succeeds at doing so is because much of this fantastic show is improvised. But it was not long before I started analyzing its content with more than just an eye for Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s funny.

What I’ve actually been thinking about lately is just how well (or not, depending on your familiarity with “hipsterism” as a phenomenon), Portlandia pokes fun at the different kinds of people that the city of Portland seems to attract, from feminist bookstore owners and animal rights activists to eccentric artists and irritable bike messengers with stretched earlobes.

Fred with stretched earlobes

During the break, I started watching the show on Netflix from the very beginning and admittedly, it took a while for me to get a few laughs in before enjoying every 25- minute episode. Although I’ve seen a lot of the stereotypes play out in my own life, some jokes just weren’t as funny to me as others. After I watched the first three episodes of season one, my attention was caught by one particular review by a Netflix commenter who quickly lost interest in the show:

While a good portion of the characters have interesting and quirky natures which lead to giggles, I’m afraid that after the first time you see them, they continue to do the exact same things. And that ends up being the largest problem with Portlandia. I get that the overly extreme feminist bookstore owners are going to be extremely feminist. I know that the neo-overgod hipsters are going to be as hipster as can be drawn out. And because the characters are meant to be portrayed this way, the jokes end up being the exact same, with a different coat of paint.

Sure, this review is accurately (and rightfully so) pointing out the repetitiveness of the show. However, what I believe he or she does not understand is that perhaps this is exactly the kind of response that Fred and Carrie want their viewers to have. They aim to exaggerate the personas of their characters to the point that it is almost surreal because they want us to look at someone or a cultural phenomenon from a different perspective.

Portlandia does not want to be regarded as funny by its viewers every time, as much as it wants to outdo itself with the next episode; this is essentially what makes the show a work of art. For example, towards the end of my favorite episode in season three, things between Fred and Carrie become complicated when they both start dating their new roommate Alexandra. What never ceases to amaze me is how natural the acting is. At some point while all three of them are on a picnic date, Fred and Carrie blatantly admit to one another the different ways in which they will be aroused by Alexandra while the other watches. The episodes only get crazier from then on!

Fred and Carrie on a picnic with their soul mate Alexandra

Of course, I have grown to love Portlandia as much as I did Breaking Bad because of how well I feel I can relate to some of the characters and ideas portrayed in the show. For example, I enjoyed following every single episode of Breaking Bad because I absolutely adore Bryan Cranston and because of my familiarity with what it means to be in a dysfunctional family. Similarly in Portlandia, literally everything that comes out of Fred and Carrie’s mouths, with the exception of some indie rock bands and social rights movements that existed before I was born, relates to some aspect of my life in New York City and Amherst.

Whether or not this has anything to do with my age, tastes in music or the kinds of friends that I usually make, I don’t know. But what I do know is that TV shows have a certain way of tapping into the experiences of select audiences and not others. In turn, what this creates is an interesting dichotomy between its ability to keep an exclusive group of viewers or the wider general public.

So does watching and easily identifying with a lot of what Fred and Carrie portray in their short, comedy sketches make me a certain kind of viewer? Not necessarily, but by watching and enjoying the show as a young Latina woman, I do believe there is something to be said about the ways in which Portlandia simply chooses not to address the real lack of diversity in Portland. If you have not already noticed, there aren’t that many people of color in Portlandia. With the exception of the old, African- American couple that Fred and Carrie contact after realizing there are no more Battlestar Galactica episodes to watch, there are little to no instances in which white, black and Latino characters interact on a daily basis.

In an article titled “Portland and Portlandia, Two Worlds of Whiteness,” Kiran Herbert speaks about her personal experiences as an Oregon native and raises important questions on how she believes the show “is a white show for a white audience.” She states:

The characters will interact, without hesitation, with a black family, or there will be brief glimpses of racial diversity as people wait in line for brunch, but a viewer wouldn’t have any reason to believe that these are black neighborhoods.

I agree with Herbert on this point; as the viewers, we simply have no way of knowing whether or not Portland is actually a place where white people and minority groups interact with ease. Perhaps the director of the show, Jonathan Krisel, a white man, didn’t feel the need to address issues of racial diversity because it would only distract from the making fun of an obsessively liberal culture run by every unique breed of the white urbanite. Before reading Herbert’s article, though, I had not given much to the very white character make- up of the show and the different ways in which a lot of the behaviors being made fun of are associated with privilege.

So the question then becomes whether or not Portlandia is irresponsibly depicting a segment of popular culture without an eye for racial diversity. The answers to this question undeniably vary depending on where you live in the United States, and quite frankly, how much you really give a shit about the accurate depiction of race and class in the media. This is not to say that because I did not give much thought to the lack of people who look like me on the show is an indication of my ignorance of racial and social issues. Instead, what I think that proves is that I am in love with the show purely because of its comic genius, and less with its social commentary because I am used to the lack of on- screen racial diversity in American TV shows anyway.

In another interesting Portlandia review that I thought summed up the way in which the show brilliantly engages its viewers, Tim Surette states, “What Armisen and Brownstein do as admitted card-carrying members of the group they’re mocking is step outside their group of freaks to look back in… what Armisen is doing with Portlandia is akin to what Chapelle’s Show did with hip-hop culture: recognizing its unique foibles and having a laugh at it.”

Anyone who is familiar with Dave Chapelle and his comedy skits knows that the man clearly does not have any intention of censoring his opinions on white supremacy and racism encountered by blacks in the United States. Chapelle, like Armisen and Brownstein, is simply aware of the myriad stereotypes surrounding his ethnic and cultural background.

Like any other satirical comedy worth watching, both Chapelle’s Show and Portlandia have generally received good reviews because in outlining the prevalence of two different cultures in American society, they are more easily capable of pinpointing the stereotypes associated with specific people and events in funny ways. Sometimes we just have to learn how to not take ourselves too seriously.

Dave Chapelle as a crack cocaine addict

Even if you have just the slightest interest in learning more about the hype behind Portland’s liberal political values or beer and coffee enthusiasm through hyperbolic lens, I assure you that Fred and Carrie will not disappoint. The new series of 10 episodes kicks off on IFC on Thursday, February 27th. You already know I’ll be cozied up in my room, hot chocolate in hand, with my new television to watch it. Cacao!