Portlandia Review

A Portlandia review? I don’t see what good can come of this. A show by an SNL guy and the ukulele player from some hipster band on IFC? I’ll get to it right after I book an appointment with the dentist from Marathon Man.

I understand where you are coming from. However, you are wrong. I just decided to try it because it popped up on Netflix and I was drawn in from the opening bit.

Which was?

If you lived here, you’d be an hour and a half from home right now.

Admittedly, not everyone will empathize with this so directly. But it starts off with Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen, who star in pretty much every sketch, meeting up in L.A. The establishing shots really capture the feel of L.A. to those of us who have fled it: crowded, polluted, drab, oppressive, hopeless. I know that seems whiny, considering people live in places like Rwanda or Buffalo, but so be it. When you are an aging washout, as these characters are, and the realization that you’ll always be spending 70% of your income on rent in a crappy neighborhood sets in, it no longer seems worth it to spend 12 hours a week in traffic.

There has to be a better way!

And Fred believes he has found it. He’s returned from a trip to Portland and tells of a place where the 90s have been preserved. The 90s, when these characters were young and cool, instead of of pushing middle age as failures. Portland is presented as a Neverland where youthful apathy can still be turned into a viable lifestyle, and the cultural detritus of better times remains in tact, down to used CD stores. That leads to this musical number, at which point I was hooked.

Why Portland? Why not Austin or some other place?

Well, I’ve never been to either of those cities, sadly. But I have had this conversation about Portlandia almost word for word several times. Even during the 90s, one of my punk rock buddies went to Portland and was in a trance for like 2 weeks afterwards. He and his girlfriend came really close to dropping out of school to move there. Imagine that. Do you realize that, though they didn’t recognize the magnitude of their actions at the time, someone sold an Xzibit CD at a used CD store in Portland during the 1990s?

So you like the show because it’s about people like you?

Well, that was the initial selling point. But as I made my way through the episodes, I recognized ever more people from my life. And at some point, it dawned on me that Portlandia had achieved a new level of making fun of white people.

Lots of shows have made fun of white people. East Bound And Down, most recently.

True. But East Bound And Down makes fun of white rubes. The techniques for doing that are well established. I think every culture knows how to make fun of backward, provincial people. But, if you are part of the dominant cultural voice, learning to see yourself objectively enough to accurately ridicule yourself is much harder. This is especially true when you are in the majority, like whites. When you’re white and mostly surrounded by other whites, it just seems normal. You almost think of yourself as raceless.

What about stuff like Chappelle’s Show?

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Well, that further illustrates the point above. A minority is going to be better at making fun of themselves because they are more aware of the fact that everything they do is not just the factory default setting. And they will be good at making fun of the majority, as Chappelle is with whites, because they can see them more objectively than they see themselves. You know, it’s easy for whites to make fun of blacks for naming their kids L’Mezzanine, but it might be harder for us to see that it’s just as bad to name your kid Macody or (shudder) Jemma.

Insert general social observation here.

I honestly believe this is the most underrated part of the mechanism of prejudice. It’s not so much that we underestimate other groups. It’s that we can see all the stupid shit other groups do more clearly, while being oblivious to the stupid shit that goes on within the groups to which we belong. I think this first dawned on me with the gays, when people were like “gay men are promiscuous and gay men like underage partners.” Because you know what prevented the average straight guy from having a one nighter with a pre-legal Selena Gomez? His unwavering moral rectitude. But an even more obvious example is religion. Even if you are religious, all the other religions seem impossibly stupid.

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And the next step in white on white humor?

After they get used to listening to minorities make fun of them, the next step is for the majority to just kind of generically talk shit about themselves with bland generalizations followed by forced laughter as a way of faking self-awareness. “Oh my, we are such small butted, poor dancers! Ahahahhahaha… does that give me enough leeway to tell my ‘nacho cheese’ joke?”

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And Portlandia?

Portlandia represents the final advancement in the science of making fun of whites. It demonstrates the intimate knowledge of the white world that an outsider might lack, but it has the keen eye of the alienated observer. Armisen is a mixed bag ethnically and culturally, so that might be a factor. But, really, the show evidences a keen level of self-examination and insight.

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For example?

Well, passive aggression is a big part of the show, of course. There’s a particular type of white, who I didn’t really encounter even in the suburbs of L.A. and met only once I ventured out into places like U.C. Santa Cruz and the punk rock scene. They are deceptive because they come off as weenies who should be total pushovers. But they’ve taken a few expressions of passive aggression and fashioned them into blunt weapons that they use tenaciously until they get what they want, down to the smallest detail. No matter what you say or do, from lashing out at them to trying to reason with them, they’ll just repeat certain phrases like, “mmmmmm…. I’d like to, but I don’t think that’s going to work,” until you submit to their will, without any compromise.

Which characters are you talking about?

One example is the middle class couple who hire Amy Mann as a maid. In between fits of gushing about what big fans they are, they politely order her to climb up on the stove for leverage to get a spot on their floor sufficiently clean. But not “too clean,” because they don’t want to encounter any chemical smells later on. They cap all this off by trying to frame it positively. “It’s a very fine line, but I know you can do it!”

But the best example is the proprietors of Women & Women First, a feminist bookstore. They demand that the every gesture of anyone to enter their field of vision conform to their liking. When Aubrey Plaza comes in to buy some books for college, she’s scolded for pointing to books she needs because, “when you do that, it makes me think of a penis.”

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Then, the proprietor played by Armisen brings out one of the big guns in the arsenal of the passive-aggressive berserker, which is badly feigning the inability to do something that you don’t want to do when it is patently obvious to everyone involved that you could do it if you chose to. In this case, she reaches up to get a book for Plaza, touches the spine, stops extending her arm and insists that she can’t reach it. Plaza angrily points out that the book is clearly in reach and Armisen denies it until Plaza storms off, leaving Armisen and Brownstein to cluck about her boorish behavior. Even when their target is gone, they will never admit to what they are doing, which is another characteristic of this sort of person. They never break character. The game is never over. They will break you down and pick you clean, then toss you carcass into a ditch. But even after you have decomposed, they will speak as anti-Apus, of how it was you who wronged them.

Are all of the tendencies lampooned in the show specifically white?

They are universal desires and behaviors, but the expressions of them are pretty white. Can I interest you in a shoddy metaphor for to make my thoughts on this subject seem coherent?

Of course. What are metaphors for?

We’re all jigsaw puzzles. We are pieced together differently and present different pictures. The logic of how the pieces fit together is universal, though the specific workings and images of each puzzle differ.

So Portlandia achieves the difficult task of observing how the coastal, middle class, white liberal’s pieces fit together, where most people would just look at the picture and be like, “look at that sailboat, it can’t dance!”

Right! So, if you are this sort of person, if you are of the Portlandia demographic, you know middle aged, female dilettantes who wind up making and selling jewelry. But the Portlandia sketch on this is about the whole story, how that all fits together. The information always comes second hand. You ask someone about their aimless sister and learn that she’s found a career as a DIY jeweler. She didn’t wind up selling jewelry for no reason. She does it because she is lazy and untalented, so she doesn’t want to work, but she still wants to express herself and pretend to work. And this leads to making jewelry or some other rubbish and selling it at swap meets or online. And then the kicker is that, in defiance of every law that governs the universe, people not only buy her stuff but grossly overpay for it and she is making money.

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Portland’s mayor, played by Kyle MacLachlan.

Or, you have the hotel employees who do everything they can to destroy the business, and upon being fired, ask the owner to hang out. These are giant two year olds, who you tend to run into most often in and around music, which is probably where Brownstein, a former member of The Bangles, ran into them. They will take a big shit all over the place by, say, doing serious damage to a house during a party. And then when you call them on it and tell them to fuck off, they immediately say something like, “well, OK. So you wanna hang out later?” Which is their way of saying, “I now realize that I’ve fucked everything up but, while I have no interest in making amends or modifying my behavior, I still want to be liked. So please affirm that you like me and I’ll see you again soon.”

And what is the universal behavior underlying all of this?

Mainly, various kinds of selfishness. Refusal to consider other perspectives. The belief that everything and everyone you encounter must conform to your prejudices and predilections. To the point where you nitpick and badger about the details of details, constantly criticizing other people while engaging in little to no self-examination. If you listen to a band, they are obligated to follow the career path you’d like them to take. All other adults must act so as to elevate your child’s self esteem. Your waitress must stand and answer inane questions for ten minutes before taking your order.

So the show is really good at cultural self-examination, which it uses to discover a lack of the same.

Indeed. Now, much of it is broader than that. Characters well into their thirties and forties still hang their identities on popular music. One bit  equates everyone having DJ nights with an invasion of podpeople. Another has Carrie and Fred starting Battlestar Galactica and watching it for so long that it destroys their lives, leading them to meet Edward James Olmos who has to explain that, “I’ve never been to outer space. Ever.”

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Another theme I like is the focus on attractive labels for things, as opposed to what the things really are. In other words, branding, which is funny because the characters believe they are being anti-establishment and anti-consumerist by applying consumerist behavior to different types objects. For example, there’s one guy who makes furniture and everyone else is enthralled by this idea. It’s trendy and “artisanal” while at the same time being very masculine. His girlfriend floats around bragging to other women about her man’s vocation. Of course, we later discover that the dude has no idea what he is doing. He just decided to become a furniture maker because it sounded cool and his furniture is useless garbage. The entire process is ultimately no different than a rube being hoodwinked into buying a shoddy product from an infomercial.

Is it really funny, or do you just get a rush out of the recognition?

It’s funny. A lot of the dialogue is subtly so. It’s sort of like Kids In The Hall in that way. It’s just kind of good, apart from being funny. Then it is also “haha” funny, but not “hahahaha” funny.

So, because the show has a racial component and because it’s shown in The United States, I assume some people were pretend-offended

Yeah. I made the mistake of googling some stuff like “Portlandia racism.” There was an article in some Boise newspaper that, along with the comments, gave me an inoperable brain tumor. Oh well. The article said that the show was funny, but wondered if it was too hostile. Somehow, the author was foolish enough to use the phrase “white minstrel show,” which is obviously wrongheaded because minstrel shows were predicated on the notion that blacks are genetically inferior. They were kind of rituals for affirming white supremacy.

I don’t think the author meant that Portlandia asserts that whites are genetically inferior, but he was trying to say it is mean spirited about whites and put his foot in his mouth up to his knee. All because he was trying to invent something to be offended by. However, just as George C. Scott unwittingly trained a dolphin to kill the president, this guy unwittingly invited 10,000 nomadic internet moralists to ride into the comments section to observe that white hipsters are not as oppressed as black sharecroppers, as though anyone actually believes that. So they were pretending to be offended by the way in which the writer pretended to be offended by the show.

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What about the bit where they dress up like Japanese girls? Japanese people aren’t white. Weren’t they doing “yellowface?”

Nah. Asians aren’t generally bothered by that stuff, unless they are fresh out of some sub-intellectual college class. They have thick skin.

What? What? Thick skin? What?? I’m PRETTY SURE that their skin is just as thin as yours or mine. Do you also think they have purple blood?

As you know perfectly well, I did not mean that Asians have physically thicker skin than do whites. And, as everyone knows perfectly well, Armisen and Brownstein dressed up like Japanese girls because they found certain cultural affectations funny, not because they wanted to make fun of Japanese people for being genetically inferior.

portlandia yellowface PC SJW

Anyway, there is an actual, real life conversation on the internet about whether or not Armisen should be permitted to play a Japanese character. You see, it turns out that he is 1/4 Japanese. Is that enough for him to make fun of youth culture in another country that is not predominantly white? What if he was 3/8ths Japanese? What if he was Filipino? What if he was blaisian? What if he was a giant robot?

Why do you mention all of this?

It’s just sort of funny that people would react to the show with hostility by so fully exhibiting the behavior it satirizes that it practically becomes a bonus sketch. All of these people seem to have watched and enjoyed the show until they found something to be pretend offended by. Then they took the first opportunity to launch into acting like the  prigs it so often makes fun of. I wonder how that works.

White 1: I sure do enjoy this show.

White 2: It skewers those moralistic hypocrites who are so  positive of their own virtue, and attack other people for petty… oh no!

White 3: The actor pretending to be Asian is only part Asian!

Whites 1,2 and 3 begin blowing their racism whistles.

Whites 4 and 5, finding the depiction of competitive preschools too spiteful, begin blowing their reverse-racism whistles.

Whites, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 object to this and begin blowing their reverse-reverse racism whistles at whites 4 and 5.

Whites 1,2 and 3 begin blowing their racism whistles at whites 6,7,8,9 and 10 for emphasizing blackface, which isn’t even in Portlandia, over yellowface, which is a very serious problem in society today.

Whites 4 and 5 put away their reverse-racism whistles and begin blowing their racism within racism whistles at whites 1,2 and 3.


What is the alternative? Just allowing people to make fun of themselves and each other willy nilly?

Sure. As long as you aren’t asserting that anybody is inferior, why not?

Blows junior anti-humor league whistle.