Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Why Portland is a perfect TV show setting

Posted By on Wed, Feb 2, 2011 at 6:28 PM

For artsy, active 20-somethings in Spokane, Portland is the shining city on the hill. It’s twee Mecca, hipster Shangri-La, El Dorado paved with bike lanes. It’s the land flowing with soy-milk and organic, locally-produced free-range honey.

As a pure matter of place, in other words, we Spokanites have an instant, slightly envious, conception of Portland is. As a conceptual setting, in other words, it's fully formed. 

Portlandia, the new IFC sketch-comedy series, captures this Portland-on-a-pedestal viewpoint nearly perfectly in their opening sketch. Portland, you see, is this alternative-universe where the dream of the 90s is still alive. It’s “where young people go to retire.”

But yet, there’s also a fair bit of sneering at Portland’s aggressive quirk.

Portlandia, as you might expect, can be as specific as possible in deconstructing and referencing its setting. Like The Goode Family, this is “Stuff White People Like: The Series.” An attempt to buy some restaurant food — and make sure it’s ethical — leads the couple to actually drive out to the farm, and become ensnared in a cult in the process. But unlike The Goode Family, the series is able to get more pointed and observational than '”do-gooder liberals do this.”

In Portland, you can put a bird on something, and call it art. Young people join ironic sports like a hide-and-seek league. There’s a slightly bitter competitiveness – and need for a separation from – Seattle. We Spokanites may have only been to Portland a few times, but Portlandia fits the exaggerated image of Portland we have in our heads perfectly.

Writers for one of Portland’s altweeklies, Willamette Week, react to Portlandia’s portrayal of their fair city.

Portland is a national punch line. If you listen to NPR, Portland jokes crop up a lot. So that idea of the city that they’re lampooning has become widespread enough that the 10 million listeners of NPR will get it. If some small fraction of that NPR audience watches the show, then they’ll have a hit.

Portland’s incredibly strong sense of city identity – and the bevy of precise stereotypes and archetypes that come with it — make it ideal for a sketch comedy series. Or any television show, really. Plenty of television shows have been filmed in Portland but not set there. Some television shows, like Life Unexpected, have been set there, but the setting never comes into play.

As a show, Portlandia is inconsistently funny. Sketches and characters are mostly disconnected. Fred Armisen throws on a wig, and he’s supposed to be playing an entirely different man — or woman. The best sketches are those that are more surreal than angry and annoyed, and that don’t require one or both characters to dress in drag. (Drag is only funny when the Brits do it.)

But as a setting, it’s nearly perfect.  Portland is a strong enough place to nearly propel a show entirely. 

From Williamete Week

One thing I do like about it is the undercurrent of anger. That makes me incredibly happy—the idea that Portlanders are furiously angry underneath their calm demeanors. There’s a lot of f---ing angry characters, and they try to be so nice. That’s one of the things they nailed about Portlanders.

That fits Portland. But that also fits good television. The characters on the most compelling shows usually have a mix of love and contempt for their setting. That's why Spokane wouldn't make a good place for a TV show — we don't love-and-hate our community enough. Our identity isn't as definable as Portland's

In drama, your setting has to be a place with deep-seeded problems — but some place worth fighting for. The Wire takes place in Baltimore's institutional rot, Chicago Code in Chicago's pervasive corruption, Friday Night Lights in the impoverished desperation of Dillon. Heck, in Lost the island was spoken of as if it was a literal character, with its own motivations, desires and frustration. And it, frankly, was a bit of a sociopath.

But in each case, the place had to be good enough that we understand why our protragonists care about the community within.

Great comedies use a similar tactic in building their universes. Greendale Community College, Springfield, and Pawnee all operate with the subtext — and sometimes text — that "this is a crazy, crappy place — but, darn it, it's our crazy, crappy place." 

That's the vibe — that love-hate paradox — you see in Portlandia, and it's perhaps the most compelling thing about the show. 

More shows could stand to be set in Portland. More shows, in fact, could be stand to be set in a place, rather than a title.

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...