TV Review: “Portlandia” – An Observational Sketch Show

Written by Emily Stewart March 21, 2013

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Independent Film Channel’s sketch comedy “Portlandia” follows the various skits by co-creators and main actors Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstien throughout the city of Portland, Oregon.Another creator of the show is Johnathan Krisel. Throughout each episode, the pair will portray a variety of characters like any sketch show would, and has a very similar format. However, the documentary esque dynamics and intelligent humour  of “Portlandia” separate it from traditional aesthetics of variety sketch programming, and appears more like a modern sitcom.

“Change The World One Party At A Time” Skit

Not sure if Sketch Program, or Sitcom

Following sitcoms such as “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation”, “Portlandia” uses cinema verite techniques such as the quasai-observational camera mode. Such aesthetics are not usually seen in sketch comedy, thus focusing and emphasizing more on the narrative. Usually, each episode will consist of a few short sketches of either homes and businesses in  Portland, a commercial specific for the show, which is the Portland Milk Advisory Board, and a main narrative that consists of most of the episode. However, as the members the Milk Board Advisory Skit change their recommended milk from cashew based to octopus based,the joke runs a bit stale.

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At first, the narrative of “Portlandia” is episodic, but serial elements, such as the mayor (Kyle MacLachlan) stepping down and Carrie and Fred both dating new resident Alexandra (Chloë Sevigny) are brought about throughout the season, making it seem more like a sitcom. The third season concludes with a blackout that brings most of the characters in the show together, whereas before they all seemed distant from each other with the odd interaction.

Milk Advisers, B&B Owners, and Rats (Oh my!)

Brownstien and Armisen are strong actors, especially knowing they play most of the roles on “Portlandia”. The pair will perform as anyone from owners of the feminist bookstore Women and Women First, a couple running a B&B, sewer rats and most often, themselves as Portland citizens. That said, their heavy involvement does not take away from the supporting cast, who will often have their own skits as well such as Stu’s Stews featuring Donald.

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The lighting of the show makes the show appear dark and gloomy, complementing the cynical humour. While it’s rare for “Portlandia” to use crude jokes in their episodes for the sake of laughter, they will have the occasional joke on race, gender, or sexuality. For the most part, the wit used is very intelligent and current, tackling topics such as eating too much high-carb foods like pasta, the lack of music videos on MTV, and the decline in traditional journalism in favour of “linkism”. “Portlandia” will also have guest appearances by musicians such as Jack White and No Doubt, where they just stop by Portland and nothing more.

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Overall, “Portlandia” has a unique approach to the sketch show structure, so much so that it feels more like a sitcom than anything. For two people tackling most of the roles and production,Brownstien and Armisen do a stellar job. Although their reunion after ending the love triangle with Alexandra was a bit cheesy, the writing and wit in the show gives it credibility. If you’re in need of a refreshing take on variety programming, be sure to give “Portlandia” a visit.

My Rating: 8/10

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About Emily Stewart

Emily is a Media, Information and Technoculture student at Western University who likes to put her critical thinking skills and passion for writing to good use, including reviewing TV shows for We Eat Films.

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