Portlandia, the deft and very funny sketch comedy brainchild of SNL-er Fred Armisen and former Sleater-Kinney member, Carrie Brownstein, smells like a combination of a dusty bookshop and a strong organic espresso. It wears combat boots, bathes only when necessary, and eats local—as local even as the neighborhood Dumpster. Friday’s episode opened with an epic battle of promotional flyer-posting—a thumb war of sorts between aggro promoter of Major Local Event known as the Blunderbuss Film & Music Festival and the owner of a lost kitten. Can you stand the hype?
Skit 1: The Deuce. We slouch like a band that’s been in a van for twelve hours into the hipper-than-thou lobby of the Deuce Hotel, the HQ for Blunderbuss, and find Armisen and Brownstein poised behind a counter constructed from file cabinets and library card catalogues. A DJ scratches out salutations and announces amenities while our desk clerks witheringly dispense analog “necessities” to the guests: books, typewriters, and turntables on which one might play a proffered Kenny Loggins LP, even though Brownstein declares, “there’s only one song on it that’s cool.”
All is going along semi-swimmingly when Echo Echo, the Blunderbuss headliner (comprised of Colin Meloy of The Decemberists, James Mercer of The Shins, and Corin Tucker, Brownstein’s former band mate from Sleater-Kinney), shows up to check in. Their very presence lights up the desk clerks’ beady eyes. In full wannabe mode, Armisen lobs, “I think you know a friend of mine,” at the band, who barely acknowledges the comment, or any of the other inanities the duo spits at them. Things reach a mellow apex when the band finds out they have to wait for a room and Mercer asks Armisen to “stop staring at him like that.” Fighting words, in Portland!
Eponymous Doppelganger, sorry, er, Echo Echo shuffles to the lobby couch for a bitch session during which they come up with an alternate name for the hotel: The Douche. Suddenly, as if summoned by a magic word, Armisen and Brownstein bookend the couch and commence trash talking as if they, too, were the mildly pissed off headliners of a local music festival who had to deal with the likes of themselves. To the band’s surprise, the clerks spearhead a quintessential rock & roll hotel destruction scene. Lamps are kicked over, decorative nests are flung, and a particular moment of joy is brought to us by Armisen, who dismantles and shreds a wall-mounted cardboard moose head with his bare hands. Cue the hotel manager, who arrives via skateboard and appears no older than 15. The duo is quickly fired. Wither will they go?
Skit 2: Sparkle Pony. A twee indie rocker called Sparkle Pony (played by Portland musician Jenny Conlee) wearing little-girl barrettes, a granny cardigan over a flamenco dress, and combat boots laconically lobbies the complete prick of a door guy to be let into her gig at one of the Blunderbuss venues. Armisen, sporting a porkpie hat and a Time/Life headset, denies her entry, repeating ad nauseum the most dreaded phrase in indie music circles: “You’re not on the list.”
The defeated Conlee tries the back entrance and encounters another asshole: Brownstein as a gold-leggings-wearing, abuse-hurling groupie (“Are you on the pill? ‘Cause like no guy would ever want to get you pregnant…” followed by an entitled, all-access laugh). The trauma of these encounters causes Sparkle Pony to go to her “special place”: a Vaseline-lensed Arden in which she and an actual pony live together in sparkly bliss.
Skit 3: Wellness Center. A masseuse asks his prostrate client if she would like “musical accompaniment” while she blisses out, and she makes the mistake of responding, “Sure!”
Enter Armisen and Brownstein as the overly self-serious Roaming Singles, a punk/new wave band that sets up their amp and keyboard right there in the sanctuary, just a foot away from the client’s naked feet. They proceed to serenade their (literally) captive audience of one with non-hits such as “Border Patrol” (about that gig in Winnipeg), and regale her with TMI stories about their stint as boyfriend/girlfriend. They essentially create a cacophony of anti-relaxation through guitar squeals, rim shots, and irritating between-song banter. As the client flees the room, wrapped in a sheet, the perplexed Roaming Singles promote their DIY merch–a blank CD that will be complete if you “grab a Magic Marker and write The Roaming Singles on it.”
Skit 4: The Continuing Adventures of Sparkle Pony. Sparkle Pony shows up at another venue, this one guarded by Armisen doing his Latino Man character that we’ve seen countless times on SNL. This version of the dickhead door guy intimates that the venue is closed for a “private event” just as a dude with no credentials waltzes through the door right in front of Sparkle Pony. She just wants to sound check, but is told by Armisen that “this is a heavy rock venue. All the kids shows and puppet shows, they are down the street.” Sparkle Pony, please report to Happy Place. End scene.
Skit 5: Hollywood Theater. We start with a film-within-a-film called the perfectly gag-inducing Finding Mr. Write, a meet-cute RomCom starring Selma Blair as plucky 30-something “with an adolescent spirit” looking online for someone to date–other than her hot, attentive husband. Complete with narcissistic voice-over and throwaway ruminations a la Sex and the City, the film itself is an exercise in self-interest. Every production credit that rolls over Blair on a date looking pensive and blowing on a mug of coffee reads: The Warnicker Bros. Who/what/where are these wunderkind auteurs?
They are at Blunderbuss, naturally, on stage at the Hollywood Theater with none other than indie film god Gus Van Sant for a dreaded post-screening Q&A. They are Armisen and Brownstein in matching vintage store leather jackets and newsboy caps, and they “would like to thank everyone involved on the film.” They are full of self-love, pointless anecdotes, and that specific brand of film-school-nerd pretentiousness that makes me contemplate homicide. They are also adept at not answering questions, for example:
Van Sant: What was the inspiration behind your film, Looking for Mr. Write?
Armisen Bro: What’s a date? What the hell’s a date anymore?
Van Sant: What did you shoot it on?
Brownstein Bro: I don’t like that question. We shot in on our hands and knees. We shot it with sores and calluses. We shot it on faith!
As they blab on, the audience members sneak out one by one, with the exception of Blair, who is perched in the audience, just tasting her “big break.” Armisen Bro busts out his story about on-set Twinkie-consumption-related weight gain and they are alone in the theater. Even Gus leaves.
Skit 6: Alaska. Sparkle Pony is still looking for her gig. According to the only kind Blunderbuss volunteer she’s encountered (Brownstein as the hipster flower child from the previous episode, the one with the bike festooned with pinwheels), Sparkle Pony’s venue is called “Alaska.” See where this is going? Sparkle Pony totes her guitar across town to a bus stop where a bus labeled “Alaska” pulls up and transports her to the Thorne Bay Inn. Guess who greets her? Armisen and Brownstein as the desk clerks with stars in their eyes. Their thinly-veiled starfuckery emerges when Sparkle Pony shows up. Brownstein blurts out, “I feel like I’ve totally read about you before,” before hooking up their pet rock star with the executive suite and offering her an impromptu show. Sparkle Pony tunes up, her audience standing with bright eyes, waiting for the magic to happen…and then the show ends.
And there we have it. And I wish I had liked it more. I’ve been waiting for Armisen and Brownstein’s inevitable skewering of Portland’s indie music scene, and though the sketches and characters captured the absurdity (Armisen’s earnest snapper with a partial Flock of Seagulls haircut from the Wellness Center comes to mind), the episode’s organization around a theme narrowed the appeal of the show. “Blunderbuss” was a subtle skewering of a very specific experience that only unsigned musicians, budding filmmakers and the people who love (kind of tolerate?) them have had, instead of the previous four episodes’ gleeful skip from one Portland neighborhood and hipsterific scenario to the next (and from one set of Armisen/Brownstein characters to the next). “Blunderbuss” was dead-on in its lampooning of indie pomposity, but it just wasn’t broad—or funny—enough to get any of its skits onto the Portlandia highlight reel.
Either way, it was great seeing Brownstein strum an SG, albeit in a Wellness Center.
Portlandia airs on Fridays at 7:30pm PNT (Pacific Northwest Time—aka 10:30 EST) on IFC. There’s only one episode left! If you’ve missed the first five, run to your local Internet clip store and prepare to giggle like a Haruki girl after five espressos.