Quicklet on Portlandia Season 1

by Jonathan Kaufman Nathan

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    • Season 1 Summary
    • Episode-by-Episode Synopsis
    • Character List
    • Key Terms and Definitions
    • Major Themes and Symbols
    • Interesting Related Facts
    • Additional Reading



Like the hipster movement it ridicules, Portlandia has its roots in the early 1990s – the Grunge Era. After early innovators like Mudhoney and Tad paved the way, the blockbuster triumvirate of Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains ruled MTV and college radio for half a decade, with Pearl Jam going on to even greater, and more sustained success. Kevin Smith and Richard Linklater made films that idealized underemployment and post-high-school doldrums. Quentin Tarantino pioneered a schizophrenic, heavily referential style of film that seemed designed to mimic the long, drawn-out, conversations of a group of stoned young film buffs with nothing to do and too big of a videotape collection.

Flannel shirts and what Silver Jews frontman David Berman would later describe as “sarcastic hair” were the height of fashion. Every young kid in America since the second World War has probably been called a lazy, good-for-nothing slacker by his or her parents at least once, but in 1993, there was no higher compliment. Everybody was going to be an artist, a comedian, a writer, a filmmaker, an actor, a poet. And in two different grunge havens, separated by half a continent, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein were starting their long journeys toward that dreamed-of success. Given that they both found their most widely celebrated success working together on a sketch comedy series, it is perhaps surprising that they both started out playing in cult favorite indie rock bands.


Jonathan Nathan is a writer, an editor, and a comedian living in San Francisco. His work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, California Northern, The Rumpus, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, BeyondChron, the Hutchinson News, and other publications. He's written about everything from politics to philosophy, from sports to cinema, from drugs to thugs.


The structure of Portlandia episodes is similar to that of a traditional sketch comedy show, in that it is built largely around individual, discreet sketches that have little to do with each other beyond the program’s overarching themes of authenticity, snobbishness, and prevarication. However, it borrows a key element from narrative television in that each episode has a clear “A-plot.” There is a main sketch in each episode which reiterates itself two or three times, sandwiched around unrelated sketches. The main sketch usually gives the episode its name.

The episodes often feature recurring characters and locations. Another departure from sketch comedy convention, which will become apparent in the sketch summaries, is the general lack of a “punchline” or “stinger” at the end of each sketch. The sketches operate more as short comedic drama plays than as traditional sketches.

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