For the last week, some of my more hip students have been asking me if I have ever seen Portlandia. I’m not much of a TV watcher. Ever since Northern Exposure went off the air, I have not watched much television save for a Jim Lehrer News Report here or there. (Of course, we do use the vehicle of the television set to watch movies.) They have urged me to see the show because, “We know you would really like it.”
This week, the students have had a battery of standardized testing. They did have a few regular class periods in the day but pretty much most of Tuesday and Wednesday they have spent staring at computers and clicking bubbles on the screen. Today they finished the testing and were to report to their last period class for which we only had about 25 minutes left. So, I told the leader of the Portlandia pack that we would watch it in class and that he was personally responsible to fast forward through any inappropriate parts. (I love Netflix.) After all, I want to keep my job.
Well, I am hooked. The show is wry, filled with satire and irony, tongue-in-cheek. It mocks but it’s a gentle mocking of the hip, liberal, progressive mindset, politics, culture specifically of Portland Oregon but obviously also globally.
The conceit of the show is that Carrie Brownstein (of the band Sleater-Kinney and who lives in Portland) and Fred Armisen (from SNL) play most of the parts, wearing wigs and other accoutrements to differentiate their characters. The skits seem improvised, in the very best sense of the word. They feel alive, in the moment, a bit raw, very visceral, and committed– almost in the spirit of Mack Sennett’s early films (as detailed in yesterday’s post). The characters often are in real places with real people from Portland acting out a loosely configured narrative. From worrying about the chicken’s provenance that they are about to eat in a local restaurant (see clip below) to promoting the values of dumpster diving, from employing Aimee Mann as their maid and Sarah McLaughlin as their gardener (who both play themselves), to running a feminist bookstore as two very dour and humorless workers, the show maintains a kind of Stephen Colbert style of sarcasm and clever satire. It is a good natured, creative, and imaginative opportunity to laugh at ourselves and our sensibilities.
One of the greatest perks of teaching is that your students keep you up to date and hip. I now certainly feel at the cutting edge of independent cultural experience. Hmm… or maybe they just thought I am like one or more of the characters on the show. Well, at least it’s a very gentle mocking. Unlike the testing the students took this week, nothing standardized about this teacher — or about this series.