I'm going to be cautious in my rating for IFC's "Portlandia" due to the divisive nature of the show's reception. I know a lot of people who sampled the show during its six episode Season One run, and the consensus seemed to be split right down the middle. Some called the show hilarious, while some found it a belabored missed opportunity. Almost nobody was left standing in the middle. Obviously, if you already love or hate the show, nothing in any review is going to change your mind. My commentary is mainly focused on new viewers who might be thinking about trying the program out. I might suggest you try to catch an episode on IFC (they rerun frequently) for free, but also on Amazon Instant Video if you don't have that network on your cable provider. I can understand why some would really connect with the show's ideology but I can also see why some would be less enthused by its meandering presentation. For myself, I did love the premise of the show but oftentimes thought sketches needed to be tightened up.
The Good: "Portlandia," first and foremost, starts with a fantastic idea. Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein have created a comedy that speaks to a very specific portion of the population. In a perfect recreation of indie hipster angst, the show skewers a world in which people are consumed by political correctness. The beauty of "Portlandia" is that it both embraces the self-importance, superiority, and silliness of this extreme sect while poking gentle fun with it. It really is spot-on in showcasing this dichotomy and Portland stands as an ideal muse for illustrating this too cool for school mentality. The self-aware characters (Armisen and Browstein play a stable of recurring bits) are so proper, in fact, they are often undone by trying to be idealized models of this elevated consciousness. It's an inspired idea, and when it works--it hits very real highs. People relate to the show because they are or know people exactly like the ones represented.
The Not-So-Good: Maybe the people that don't connect as much are lacking the relationships necessary to put the show's environment in context. If, for example, you live in Portland or a place like it--it would be hard not to be amused by the premise of the show. However, premise aside, the show sometimes lacks a comedic timing to make even its funniest bits work to perfection. Skits tend to meander a bit, sometimes with a seeming lack of focus. I realize that this is also kind of the point of the premise, but I felt so many sequences went on just a beat too long. If you're looking for big joke based laughs, this is more character driven or situational comedy. Very few moments end in big punchlines. The big laughs, in fact, are infrequent--most of the time, I was gently amused.
Armisen and Browstein create some colorful characters (some more successful than others), but the absolute highlight of the season is to catch the unexpected guest stars. Kyle MacLachlin is fantastic as the mayor, Aimee Mann playing herself as a maid is a hoot. Likable Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation) pops up, but is underutilized. Steve Buscemi has perhaps the season's most mystifying cameo. And there are a few more surprises, and it's fun to see how many people were willing to drop by for a scene or two. Overall, "Portlandia" is a definite (but cautious) recommendation for the right audience. Again, I think its ability to both embrace and satirize the ridiculous is its strongest asset. Season One is six episodes running shy of thirty minutes each. Catch up now, as Season Two starts on IFC in January 2012. KGHarris, 10/11.