“Portlandia” began its eighth and final season on IFC on Jan. 18. The sketch comedy show put Portland on the map as the capital of earnest urbanism at a time when words like “artisanal” and “locavore” were sweeping the nation.
It was an image Portlanders loved at first, but then came to struggle with.
There was a time when saying you lived in Portland, Oregon, would garner a response like, “That’s above California, right?” But now, people not only know where the city is, they inevitably ask, “Is it just like the show?”
“Portlandia” first erupted onto the national consciousness when the satirical music video “Dream of the ‘90s” premiered online in Dec. 2010. It starred co-creators Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, with a host of local circus performers, artists, hipsters and the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus.
Armisen asks Brownstein, “Remember when people were content to be unambitious, sleep till 11 and just hang out with their friends? When you had no occupations whatsoever, maybe working a couple hours a week at a coffee shop?”
“Right,” Brownstein answers. “I thought that died out a long time ago.”
“Not in Portland,” Armisen says. “Portland is a city where young people go to retire.”
After long lagging other West Coast cities economically (thus its affordability for young pseudo-retirees), Portland was just beginning to call attention to itself in 2011. Its urban planning was being heralded as a new benchmark, its restaurants were the darlings of The New York Times, its music scene was sending flannel-clad indie rockers onto the charts, and “Portlandia” was able to lovingly skewer the city’s progressive optimism and “Keep Portland Weird” mindset in ways that locals joked bordered on documentary.
“The chicken episode cracks me up to this day — partially because I can kind of see myself a little bit in it,” said artist MK Guth about the infamous “Colin the Chicken” sketch, where a couple’s inquiries after the provenance of the chicken on the menu at a farm-to-table restaurant send them off to the farm to make sure he lived a happy chicken life. “I’m like, ‘Oh wow, I am the person who knows where my eggs come from.’”
The show channeled a national zeitgeist. It seemed like everywhere people were pickling things, making jewelry and standing in line for brunch. “Put a bird on it” became cultural shorthand for an entire indie aesthetic (just try searching #PutABirdOnIt on social media). And while the TV audience was never huge — its peak at 600,000 viewers in its second season paled to the millions who tuned into the other filmed-in-Portland show, “Grimm” — the sketches spread across the internet like a virus of the funny bone, reaching millions worldwide.
Brownstein says their hope was always that the show would appeal far beyond Portland’s city limits and that anyone anywhere could connect with its absurdity. “‘Portlandia’ was specifically not called ‘Portland’ because it implied a heightened version of place, it implied an ideology, a mindset, a way of life,” she said.
The show found at least one fan in Morocco. “There was a quirky otherness to the show I connected with,” said Tiara Darnell, who started watching “Portlandia” while in the Peace Corps. She didn’t want to move home to D.C. when she finished, but she didn’t know where to go. “It seemed like a cool place to go and figure myself out. That wasn’t the only reason I moved to Portland or to Oregon, but it would be not truthful to say that didn’t have some sort of impression on me.”
But after moving, Darnell realized there were things she hadn’t noticed about the show.
“I could probably count on one hand how many episodes actually have a black person even in it, even as an extra,” she says. “So it lends itself to this notion that Oregon and Portland are very white, and there’s no black people here. For a while that weighed on me.”
Darnell says it took a year or two for her to really connect with the black community in Portland and discover Portland’s troubled history with race.
The city’s booming popularity attracted 200,000 new residents over the course of the show’s run, to say nothing of an increase in tourism of 50 percent. Like many coastal cities, the cost of housing spiked, and for Portlanders, the “Dream of the ‘90s” started to sting, as that part-time barista job stopped covering rent, and another favorite dive bar got bulldozed for high-end condos.
“Portlandia” became a target for all sorts of anger over the changes in the city. The most public backlash came from In Other Words, the feminist bookstore the show used for one of its most well-known ongoing sketches about two second-wave feminists, Candice and Toni, and their willfully self-involved approach to running the store.
In 2016, In Other Words posted a blog entry that got national attention, in part for its incendiary title, “F—- Portlandia.” It accused “Portlandia” of mocking trans people, ignoring people of color, spurring gentrification and mass displacement, and being bad for business. Board member Nam Kennedy says that visitors drawn by the show rarely turned into customers: “They’ll stand outside or stand in our doorway and mock some of the things that we advertise in the space.”
For others, the show was more a symptom of change than a cause. Nonetheless, “Portland Monthly” senior editor Fiona McCann says it often felt like people weren’t able to differentiate between “Portlandia” and Portland, and locals grew tired of being made fun of.
“There is a sense that the show has run its course and that it’s time for it to move on, not just because of the changing political climate, but our concerns are different,” she said, adding: “All that said, I’m grateful for how much it made me laugh.”