Portlandia is probably the most indie TV series ever. One of its stars and co-creators is Carrie Brownstein from Sleater-Kinney; the other is Saturday Night Live alumnus Fred Armisen, who used to be drummer in a post-hardcore band called Trenchmouth. Carrie and Fred have crazy connections: Washed Out provides the show’s theme tune, while Jack White, Josh Homme, St Vincent, Aimee Mann, Dirty Projectors, No Doubt, kd Lang, Guns N’ Roses’ Duff McKagan and Joanna Newsom have all made guest appearances over the first four seasons.
But it’s not just Carrie and Fred’s trendy friends that gives Portlandia some indie cred; it’s the show’s subject matter, too. This cable sketch-comedy series, about to begin its fifth season in January, is an affectionate send-up of life in Portland, Oregon – a city in the US’s Pacific Northwest region whose fondness for all things alternative has earned it the unofficial slogan “Keep Portland Weird”. Portland is a place of microbreweries, vegan brunches and more hipster beards than a Dalston barber shop. Portland has a Vacuum Cleaner Museum. Portland is, well, ripe for having the piss taken out of it, which Carrie and Fred do brilliantly in a way that’s pin-sharp but never nasty.
Portlandia is essentially an exaggerated version of Portland, but often it doesn’t feel that exaggerated. It’s easy to imagine something like the Battle of the Gentle Bands – whose entrants are called things like Bless The Barn and Franny Wisp – actually taking place. If you’ve ever dined at a vegan restaurant, you’ll totally understand why the idea of a “fart patio” where patrons can let off mung bean steam isn’t so ridiculous. And once you’ve watched the horribly accurate “Put a Bird on It” sketch, you won’t believe how many tote bags emblazoned with magpies you begin to spot.
Obviously Portlandia is inspired by the peculiarities of Portland, but many of its sketches hit a more universal nerve. Portlandia is anywhere, anything or anyone which wants to be a bit hipster, or twee, or self-consciously quirky. There’s more than a kernel of truth in characters like the guy whose “thing” is posting lolzy replies to e-vites, or the couple who go cold turkey on pasta to combat their middle-aged spread, or the group of friends who can’t keep a conversation going because they’re all watching shows at different paces on Netflix: “Aaagh, spoilers!”
Not surprisingly given Carrie and Fred’s backgrounds, Portlandia also has some pertinent points to make about the state of the music industry right now. In one episode, cult singer-songwriter Aimee Mann is seen getting a job as a cleaner because she can’t make ends meet through recording and touring; in another, a crew of ageing indie fans join forces to “take over MTV” and make it a music channel again – something which anyone who’s watched one too many episodes of Geordie Shore in a row has surely fantasised about.
That’s the thing about Portlandia – it’s often all too easy to relate, even if you’re annoying roommate isn’t Chloe Sevigny and you don’t live in a place where Roseanne Barr is flown in when Kyle MacLachlan’s city mayor decides to off the grid for a while. Seasons one to three are available on UK Netflix now.