'Portlandia' Season 3 Review: Has the Series Helped Or Hurt Portland's Image?


By now, you've at least heard of it. Created by the dynamic duo Fred Armisen (SNL) and Carrie Brownstein, Portlandia is a Peabody Award-winning show that satirizes the environmentally-conscious “health nut” lifestyle that Portland is known for. Filmed on location, the show draws on the typical stereotypes of Portlanders — the tree huggers and impractical bicyclists, the feminists and vegans and ambiguous gender-identifications — and blasts them out of proportion. The result: hilarity. But the question remains, does Portlandia go too far?

Are we laughing at Portland, or laughing with it?

There's no doubt these stereotypes exist, after all. Portland really is one of a kind — where else can you find a vegan strip club? So it's not as if the tall tales spun by Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein are ungrounded. In fact, having lived in the city for almost three years now, I know that a sketch like “Feminist Bookstore” portraying extreme feminists ironically looking down on other women who do not share their beliefs, isn't so far off from reality. Or in “No Grocery Bag,” when a store clerk is appalled at a customer neglecting to bring his own bag, the situation is not utterly unbelievable. As Newsday claims, “...before long it doesn't seem like satire any longer but a funhouse mirror reflection of intensely real people.”

Yet these “funhouse mirror” reflections are exaggerated just enough to be outlandish. Compared to these sketches, Portland is actually quite sane and calm, very accepting and easy-going. But as a city full of artists, young people, and dreamers all around, maybe Portland is one of those places that has no problem with being known as completely ridiculous.

According to ULoop, “The goal is not to trash Portland, but to creatively satirize a city the stars know and love.”

And even if the goal was to trash Portland, publicity is publicity, no matter how you take it. Since Portlandia came on air, not only has Portland stepped up as a tourist attraction (a local bicycle tour company is even offering Portlandia-themed bike tours now), but the show has also provided the community with local business promotion and job security — more than 100 Portland companies support the show with goods and services, and most of the extras you see onscreen are Portlanders as well. No matter what preconceived notions Portlandia may be exploiting, it has certainly stimulated the city from an economic angle. Any press is good press — especially if it's hilarious.

And Portland, in my experience, has a good sense of humor. The city can laugh at itself. Take “Dream Of The '90s” sketch as an example. No one is saying that the '90s are not alive in Portland; on the contrary, the '90s are very much alive in this city, from the rampant flannels to the “tattoo ink that never runs dry.” Yet it's not to the extent which Portlandia would have you believe — if it were, the joke would be hurtful, and Portland might seriously need to get a grip.

But natives of Portland are far too secure and earnest in their indie passions to be insulted by such clever stabs at them. If anything, rather than offending Portlanders, Portlandia sketches build on the jaded views of those who have never been to Portland, who can only imagine the vegan and feminist horrors. Thus each time Portlandia comes up in conversation with a non-Portlander, I am inevitably asked with insatiable curiosity, “Is it really like that in Portland?”

The question leaves me stunned. I find myself speechless, and wonder, is Portlandia hurting Portland's image?

In an interview with NPR, Fred Armisen declared Portland a “dreamy, solid place.” It may seem paradoxical, but it's true: Portland is a place where dreams and reality manage to fit comfortably together. And Portlandia's comedy acknowledges this. The show is hyperbolic to get your laughs, but grounded with enough truth to retain an (almost) accurate Portland vibe — and still seem entirely absurd to non-natives. Yet the gap between the show's exaggerations and honesty is large enough that it doesn't hurt Portlanders' feelings. When you think about it, the rest of the country's ignorance is as much the punchline as Portland itself.

After all, waking up at 11:00 a.m. every day doesn't sound all that bad. And a place where the Bush administration never happened? Well, we can always dream.

So next time I'm prompted with the question, “Is it really like that?” I'll answer, “Yes, it's really like that.” And I'll only be half-joking.