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Blu-ray Review: Portlandia – Season One

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Portlandia is a sketch comedy show conceived by, written by and starring Fred Armisen (Saturday Night Live) and Carrie Brownstein (vocalist/guitarist for Sleater Kinney and Wild Flag). Based in Portland, Oregon, the show creates its own world of characters who are only slightly more fringe than the actual characters who already inhabit Portland.

The Season

It should be noted that the humor of Portlandia isn’t going to be for everyone. Although that could truthfully be said about any comedy, it’s generally especially true of humor that veers toward the dry and random variety. Fred Armisen brings some of the more offbeat humor from Saturday Night Live over to this show, and finds a soul-mate with the very funny Carrie Brownstein. The two tag-team and character swap for most of the show’s segments, with extra bit players brought in to populate the rest of the world.

Most of the humor is found in exaggerated charicatures of more fringe personalities. Militant bike messengers, organic farm communes and adult play groups are all gently taken down a peg. But it’s not a mean-spirited show, and often highlights how even the “normals” can be just as obsessive in their own way. But if the idea of a couple leaving a restaurant to go make sure the chicken they’re about to order comes from an ethically-conscious farm isn’t appealing to you, you could be in for a bumpy ride with the show. Because that might bode poorly for your enjoyment of the theme song for Portland which is forbidden from sounding like it could have been made in Seattle.

Some of the sketches are more immediately appealing than others, but the abbreviated six-episode season helps ensure that fluff is kept to a minimum. For every adventurous sex couple who wear out their welcome, there are more than enough over-excited mayor sketches and Aimee Mann housecleaning segments to make up for it. Even the bits that laborously milk a bad sight gag (“You gotta get out of there!”) are brief enough to offer a palette cleanser for the next thing. Recurring characters also help build a sense of community for the show so that it becomes much more than just a playground for random humor.

Part of the allure of Portlandia is that at its core, it isn’t really about Portland. Portland is simply a concentrated microcosm of various indie movements and subcultures that seem to love posturing as holier-than-thou. Whether it’s dumpster divers, organic obsessives, hipster culture watchers or granola feminists, every major city sports these ideas to some degree. Portland just happens to send out a homing beacon for these and other groups. And with Portlandia, even people who just love to put birds on things have a home. Stop by for a visit, won’t you? Whatever. Stopping by is so over.

Video/Audio

With some study, the show certainly reveals its more low-budget roots, but to their credit that study would be required. This is a very well-shot sketch show, especially given the vast array of locations and settings. Outdoor and/or natural light scenes are easily half the show, and the creators maintain a strong light and color balance throughout, with the outdoor scenes looking especially nice. It’s not a blockbuster, but the picture is very pleasing. Detail is for the most part excellent, and even when things go rough it’s usually for effect. A few image aberrations pop up either from the source or the encode, but given the nature of the show it’s a very minor complaint.

The audio half of things is much more stripped down, offering nothing more than a Dolby Digital 2.0 track. Honestly, it’s not a huge deal given the TV dialogue bent of the show, but on the other hand there is enough musical emphasis with a lot of sketches that it would have been nice. However, given the low-budget nature of the production that’s perhaps a wish too far. The track provided does a very commendable job of always balancing dialogue, music and effects. It’s not a show of wide sound dynamics, but again there are still plenty of instances of music playing a prominent role, and the editing in general is quite well done.

Bonus Material

The bonus section is actually the main disappointment in this set. There are commentary tracks for each episode featuring Armisen, Brownstein and director Jonathen Krisel, but the trio have little to add to the viewing and mostly offer random memories of filming certain scenes. Next up are some bloopers (HD, 4:45) from the season, a rather dull montage of instances where people can’t keep from laughing during their lines. Two extended scenes (HD, 4:08) are included, but are largely just scenes that were wisely shortened to begin with. A section of deleted scenes (HD, 16:07) actually provide a mixture of good and mediocre moments to the show, with a couple probably just cut due to time constraints.

One of the longer items is Fred Armisen giving the commencement speech to the 2011 graduating class of Oregon Epicsopal School (HD, 11:41) but has hit-and-miss delivery from a comedy standpoint, with Armisen occasionally seeming nervous doing it at all. There are two video shorts from Armisen and Brownstein’s pre-Portlandia web project Thunderant (SD, 11:09) with the first short about going shopping only to find your favorite store is closed showing some promise of things to come, and the second bit involving a one-man show performance (with no audience) just being painful and painfully long. Finally, there is an all-too-brief teaser for Season 2, that does little more than confirm that some characters will return.

The Blu-ray release is actually a combo-pack bundled with a DVD, both discs containing all bonus features. The set is in an eco-friendly cardboard stock foldout housed in a cardboard sleeve. The paper packaging is a bit inconvenient for safely housing at least the DVD portion, but hey, it’s very Portland.

Conclusion

For my tastes, the first season of Portlandia is about eighty percent effective. And I’m even warming up to the remaining twenty. Some of the skits are more immediately humorous than others – as well as some character pairs in general – but once you settle into this fairly left-of-center universe, things can quickly become almost endearingly hilarious. It’s one of the few shows that actually becomes better on a repeat visit, which makes this set an easy recommendation if you’re even slightly interested in this dry skewering of indie culture(s).

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About David R Perry