Somewhere in Portland, there’s a very old building, and that very old building has a very, very old basement.
Mark Hemingway discusses the unbearable television program, the absolutely appalling left coast city that inspired it, and the pathological politics infesting places on the Pacific coast.
Portlandia instantly struck a chord as a Garrison Keillor-type takeoff on the edgy urban set. Instead of idyllic Lake Wobegon, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average,” Portlandia is where “the tattoo ink never runs dry” and “all the hot women wear glasses.” The show is now in its second season and has even spawned a live comedy tour that’s bringing Portland to a venue near you.
But while Portlandia is more acerbic than Prairie Home Companion, it too can come off as a twee, chiaroscuro character study that spends as much time burnishing the city’s reputation for “West Coast urban cool” as it does mocking it. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. I’m just afraid that the real-life absurdities of Portland merit a more cutting critique.
Case in point: One of the most commented-on sketches from the show is a scene from the first episode in which Armisen and Brownstein are sitting in a restaurant. After asking their waitress a series of absurd questions about whether the chicken they are about to eat is local—“the chicken is a heritage breed, woodland raised chicken that’s been fed a diet of sheep’s milk, soy, and hazelnuts. . . . His name was Colin, here are his papers”—the couple ends up leaving the restaurant and driving to the farm to see the environment where the chicken was raised in order to assuage their guilt about eating it.
As a comment on urban America’s foodie culture, the sketch is funny and incisive. But it doesn’t begin to show how insufferable Portland actually is in this regard. Portland’s restaurants are incredibly good, provided you don’t gag on their politics and pretension. It’s common for restaurants to brag about keeping “food miles” to a minimum—a rough calculation on the menu informing you how far all the ingredients have traveled to your plate, as if this were a rational measure of the restaurant’s environmental impact. One Portland ice cream parlor I visited recently was inviting patrons to swing by on Saturday afternoon for a meet and greet with the local producer of its “artisanal finishing salts.”
And in 2010, the Oregonian actually ran a story with the headline “Portland pig cook-off followed by brawl over the provenance of pork.” During a local culinary competition a fistfight broke out because one of the chefs—the horror!—wasn’t using locally sourced pork. The mêlée ended with one of the chefs and the organizer in rough-looking mug shots and the latter in the hospital with a fractured tibia. When it comes to the city’s food obsession, the truth far outstrips Portlandia.
Given the lack of critical attention to the city, I guess it falls to me to state the obvious: Portland is quietly closing in on San Francisco as the American city that has most conspicuously taken leave of its senses.