How politically correct is the Northwest? Watch 'Portlandia' on IFC and learn
Former Sleater-Kinney musician Carrie Brownstein talks about the new TV show she created with "Saturday Night Live's" Fred Armisen, "Portlandia." It spoofs Northwest culture.
Special to The Seattle Times
'Portlandia'10:30 p.m. Friday on IFC.
Tonight in Prime Time
Seattle, you're mostly spared, at least by name, in IFC's "Portlandia," a six-episode TV comedy series that spoofs Northwest culture.
Fred Armisen (who impersonates Obama and others on "Saturday Night Live") and Redmond native Carrie Brownstein (who co-founded the now-disbanded indie rock band Sleater-Kinney in Olympia in 1994), star in "Portlandia," playing a cast of recurring characters. They include a pierced bicycle messenger, a pseudo-artsy couple, members of an adult hide-and-seek league and Toni (Brownstein) and Candice (Armisen), self-involved co-owners of a feminist bookstore.
Brownstein said she and Armisen met in 2005 — Armisen has been a drummer in bands — and started making online videos (Thunderant.com) that led to the creation of "Portlandia," which is executive produced by "SNL" grand pooh-bah Lorne Michaels. The videos, like the sketches in "Portlandia," were outlined but largely improvised.
"We did the videos for no other reason than as an excuse to hang out and to have fun," said Brownstein. "The way that we approach improvisation is very musical, where we're taking disparate parts and coming together and hopefully forming something cohesive."
Brownstein, who moved to Portland in 2001, said she and Armisen are trying to capture a peculiarly Pacific Northwest political climate in the series.
"In progressive communities you have people and dialogue and movements that proclaim to be inclusive and in order to be included, there are a bunch of rules you need to follow," she said.
She points to the characters of Toni and Candice, who want their bookstore to be for everybody, but it's actually for no one other than themselves.
"A lot of the characters on 'Portlandia' are on either side of that equation," Brownstein said. "They're either the ones that are coming up with these esoteric rules or they're the people that often are stifled by their own definition of what it means to be well-intentioned."
One of her own recent experiences could easily be a sketch on the show. Brownstein decided to move her money from Wells Fargo to Umpqua Bank, to bank locally. But when she went to set up an account at a branch office, she saw a ragtag, spray-painted sign across the street that read, "Boycott Umpqua Bank, they support the logging of old-growth forests."
"What am I supposed to do now?" a frustrated Brownstein said. "Everything has shifted so far into a liberal or progressive ideology, it becomes extreme. So what would be considered altruistic or even a good deed in another city, in places like Portland and Seattle, that is not enough, a local bank is not good enough. You have to invest your money with squirrels or a hippie on the side of the road who's a tree-hugger. There's no winning."
The series includes music created by Brownstein and Armisen, including a music video — "The Dream of the '90s is Alive in Portland" — that opens the first episode and serves as a mission statement of sorts. (Brownstein continues to make music outside of the TV series in the band Wild Flag, formed last year with former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss; their first album will be released later this year).
In the Jan. 28 episode, Armisen and Brownstein are joined by Yakima native Kyle MacLachlan, who plays the mayor of Portland. He asks the duo to craft a Portland theme song, but warns: "Please don't make it like Seattle. The Space Needle, ugh, like we haven't seen that before."
"I think there was a certain time when Portland felt like the kid sister or kid brother to Seattle when Seattle went through the dot-com boom and the explosion of grunge and then none of the bands in Portland were as big as Nirvana and Soundgarden," Brownstein said. "We never grew into the sort of cosmopolitan city Seattle did in the early '90s."
That led to a bit of an inferiority complex.
"Portland is a city that has a lot of self-esteem that's filled with people with very little self-esteem," she said. "[It] is full of well-intentioned, kind people that sometimes go to great lengths to be a little mean to let you know they're kind."
Yet, there are commonalities between Seattle and Portland: "You can't find two more beautiful cities in the U.S.," she said.
"I'm not going to start a war with Seattle," Brownstein added, smiling. "I grew up in one and live in the other."
Rob Owen: RobOwenTV@gmail.com or on Twitter or Facebook under RobOwenTV.