The Netflix Fix: Portlandia


This column first appeared in The Student, Tuesday 1st October 2013

The UK has never quite managed to produce an equivalent to Saturday Night Live, the riotous US sketch show that’s produced a smorgasbord of star alumni, from Bill Murray and Will Ferrell to Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig. One particularly brilliant alumnus is Fred Armisen, who, alongside Carrie Brownstein, writes and stars in Portlandia, a comedy satirising the pretentious ‘hipster’ inhabitants of Portland, Oregon. Like SNL, it’s currently only available to UK residents on Netflix.

So praise the lord for Netflix, because Portlandia is clever, funny and deserves an audience here. Armisen and Brownstein play an eclectic host of characters: the owners of feminist bookstore ‘Women and Women First’, all pinafores, cardigans and unkempt hair, over-sensitive to any hint of misogyny to the point where they abuse and repel all potential customers (including a bewildered Steve Buscemi); restaurant-goers who are obsessive about the origin of their organic chicken; and twee craft designers who craft innumerable items covered in bird print (‘put a bird on it!’) but are horrified by an encounter with an actual live bird.

There are some pretty surreal moments. The Japanese Harajuku Girls skit, featuring a video-game-style day in a coffee shop, is especially trippy. There’s generally a lot of joy and silliness, and Armisen and Brownstein swap genders frequently to great effect. In short, it’s a show that doesn’t take itself seriously. And if you like your celebrity cameos then Portlandia won’t disappoint, with appearances from Andy Samberg, Kristen Wiig, Roseanne Barr, Jeff Goldblum and Matt Lucas, to name just a handful.

It’s the kind of comedy that translates well to a British audience – heaven knows we have enough hipsters here – so it’s a great thing that Netflix is offering the first three seasons for casual browsers to sample; because who wants to fork out for the DVD of an unknown entity? Netflix ‘recommended’ Portlandia to me because I watched a lot of Arrested Development and SNL, and I’m not sure if I would have discovered it otherwise.

That’s one of the perks of Netflix: it tells you what you might like and if you don’t then it’s no big deal – it hasn’t cost you any extra. But if you do then you can rake in a hoard of unknown treasures like Portlandia.