Hip, cage-free TV: ‘Portlandia’ is renewed
In the last season of "Portlandia," the mayor of this sustainability-obsessed city vanished in shame after he was singled out as Portland's "No. 1 electricity hog," Portland went into a blackout, cats barked, creepy music played, and a bizarre Australian who calls himself "Birdman" told guests at a bed and breakfast "there is no civilization."
Carrie and Fred - about the only characters in "Portlandia" with any grip on reality - tracked down the mayor at a compound in the wilderness where he was leading a band of savages, a la Colonel Kurtz in "Apocalypse Now."
"Do you come as assassins?" asks the muddled mayor, played by Kyle MacLachlan.
It's impossible for Fred and Carrie to get through to him, until they reveal that Seattle - Portland's archrival for hipness and progressivism - is about to take over their fair city.
"Under the cover of darkness, they might erect a Space Needle in Portland," says Carrie, rousing the mayor from his stupor and prompting him to return to his office to get the lights turned back on.
And so ended Season Three of "Portlandia."
There is a line from the first season of "Portlandia" that quickly became the show's trademark: "Portland is a city where young people go to retire."
That's not the case for the creators and two stars of the show - Portlander Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen of "Saturday Night Live" fame. They are always looking for new ways to keep the show from getting stale.
Season Three, which ended this past March, was driven less by short sketches and more by narrative and character development.
The cable channel IFC said Wednesday it's picking up the show for two more seasons. They will premiere early next year and in 2015. Brownstein says the show will continue on the longer-narrative path, with more exploration of the dark side.
It's too early to say what's going to happen after 2015. But that might be the end of the road for "Portlandia."
"I'd like to develop and write other shows, comedy of some sort," the 38-year-old Brownstein said in an interview at a Portland coffee shop.
"Five seasons intuitively feels like the right amount of time for 'Portlandia' to be around," she said. "I always think people overstay their welcome. It's better to leave people wanting more. But you never know."
If "Portlandia" is a sendup of overzealous progressives and hipsters, it's become hip to watch the show. It's the most-watched series on IFC, whose targeted audience is the age 18-49 range.
Everyone has a favorite episode of "Portlandia," which debuted in January 2011. It might be when a cyclist (Armisen) asserts his rights by hollering, "I'm on a bike. I'm in a bike lane here" and says "Cars, man, why?" It might be the couple in a restaurant who are about to order chicken. They ask whether the chicken is USDA organic, Oregon organic or Portland organic. The waitress brings the chicken's papers and tells the couple it had a name: Colin. The couple visits the farm where Colin was raised to make sure it had been a good home for him.
"Portlandia" fans are able to recite lines like fans of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." People use the TV show as a yardstick to measure quirky events in everyday life: "That's just like a scene out of 'Portlandia.'"
Brownstein said Portland is not "the sole inspiration for the show," but that the city serves as a "signifier for an emotional landscape people are traversing." In "Portlandia," that emotional landscape is largely populated by sanctimonious humans whose obsessive pursuit of a sustainable lifestyle can clash with the desires of others. Somehow, "Portlandia" manages to portray such types with warmth.
Last year, "Portlandia" won a Peabody Award for being "a funhouse mirror reflection of Portland, Oregon, a city that takes its progressivism - and its diet - very seriously." This past February the show won the Writers Guild Award in the Comedy/Variety category. The show has pulled in some big names for cameo roles, including Jeff Goldblum, Roseanne Barr, Steve Buscemi, Chloe Sevigny and George Wendt.
Portlanders for the most part seem good-humored about the show, laughing at the caricatures of themselves and welcoming the attention. Tourists come to Portland to see local landmarks on the show. "Portlandia" walking and cycling tours have sprung up.
"Portlandia" put a number of locals in the show, including then-Portland Mayor Sam Adams, who played assistant to MacLachlan's fake Portland mayor.
"'Portlandia' has been worth millions in free advertising for Portland," Adams told the AP. "It is a loving spoof that has also allowed us to laugh at ourselves and allows others to do the same."
You hear grumbling among some locals about Portland being stereotyped, and about the stereotype being beaten to death. Still, locals will admit Portland is ripe for satire. If you go to a Portland potluck party, don't be surprised if nearly everyone brings a kale salad. And try not to get embarrassed if a group of nude cyclists zips past your car in broad daylight. And yes, Portland does have a vegan strip club, and another club where strippers do their thing while customers sing karaoke.
"Portlandia" was born from an earlier creative adventure written by and starring Armisen and Brownstein - an Internet video series under the name ThunderAnt.
"It took those videos to realize we were portraying a certain kind of person," people with a "stunted maturity ... who are flummoxed by the ever-changing rules of progressivism," Brownstein said.
When the Washington state native was a guitarist and vocalist for the riot grrrl-inspired trio Sleater-Kinney, Brownstein already had a measure of celebrity in rock music circles.
And now Brownstein is a household name, if your household watches "Portlandia."
If your household does not watch "Portlandia," you may have seen Brownstein in a new American Express ad. She plays a businessman with oversize glasses licking an ice cream cone, a hipster who's just made a rare find in a record store, a sitar player and a grocery-shopping mom who puts her foot down when one of her kids tries to add two more near-human-sized jars of peanut butter to those already in the shopping cart.
At the end of the ad, Brownstein's voice says: "I'm Carrie Brownstein, and I get to be whoever I want."
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