Oh, Portlandia

31 July 2012 | 3:55 pm | Sam Hobson

"Concepts are interesting on paper, but characters are something people can really embrace and helps the longevity of the show."

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Maddening and brilliant, US sketch-comedy series, Portlandia, is a keen, loving look at middle-class ennui and its birthing of an adorably impotent, utterly un-self-aware class of suburban hipster-dom. Creators Carrie Brownstien (of bands Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag) and Fred Armisen (Saturday Night Live) poke fun at everything from the Organics movement to militant, reactionary feminism, to gender roles and safe-words, and even the nature of sketch shows themselves. Portlandia takes aim at an earnest, eager counterculture brimming with well-meaning hypocrisy and clumsy, half-formed ideals; a culture of youth-without-youth whose cries of standing up for their rights and saving the world ring hilariously vague in a sleepy town of leafy, sunny streets and well-manicured, trust-funded lawns.

Portlandia is, however, so much more than just a sketch-comedy series. It's a sketch-comedy series where each vignette, each phrase feels like someone you know. “Like Melbourne, like St. Kilda, [Portland] exemplifies all of the traits that you'd want for a show like this,” Brownstein explains, well versed on our country's hotspots from her time as a touring musician. “It has a kind've idyllic quality, Portland: it's a dreamy place.”

But Portland the town, she stresses, is not quite the Portlandia of the series' setting. “Portland is kind of a good representational city, a place that's always got an incessant optimism and is a little bit on the cusp in terms of progressive thinking and ideologies. It also just looks different. It's not a city that's portrayed a lot on television, so it can also just look different for us, aesthetically.”

Brownstein herself grew up in the American Northwest, and co-creator Fred Armisen, she says, “always had a fondness for the place,” so both of them have lived lives and in modes in many ways inseparable from the cultures and behaviours they're sending up. “I think it's pretty uninteresting to satirise something that you don't have a fondness for,” Brownstein sggests. “I think that that becomes crass and cynical, and this is not a cynical show – it's a show that's very earnest and optimistic, just like the city itself. Humour is one way, one lens with which to understand a situation. I think that some of the complexities and questions which we're exploring are much more interesting to explore through a satirical lens, not, say, a documentary lens – at least for us.”

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With a particular focus on writing character, Brownstein insists that crafting those traits into a short sketch is no different from how she would write something otherwise. “It's a host of things. Sometimes there's a premise that we want to explore, or a concept, or a character trait that we're interested in. Often it's a relationship between two people, how it manifests itself, how it's aggravated under certain circumstances, or how a certain situation might bring out the most essential qualities of two people, or the most extreme.

“We're throwing a lot of ideas out there, but then seeing what actually isn't just conceptual. You don't want to make a conceptual show. You want to make a show that has a kernel of truth to it; one that has real characters.”

If nothing else, it's definitely a very human show, Portlandia. Sure, its characters are very recognisably caricatures, but they're often crafted with such startling nuance that even through their outlandishness, they feel real; they feel relatable. “I think about the shows that we love,” Brownstein adds, “and what brings us back to those shows, we all realise it was the characters, and relatability, and feeling invested in someone's [fictional] life. I think, for [the new] seasons, we're taking some of the characters we've built upon and really exploring their lives further.

“And yes, I think that part of the reason the show works is that it does have a very absurd quality to it. You don't want to lose that frivolity or silliness, but I think that, in order to sustain, or push forward, you do kind of have to dig a little bit deeper and give people things to attach themselves to instead of just concepts. Concepts are interesting on paper, but characters are something people can really embrace and helps the longevity of the show.”

Portlandia Season One (Umbrella) is out August 1.