Because I’m shotgunning Sons of Anarchy and Downton Abbey right now, I needed an emotional palate-cleanser/mood-lifter. So I watched the entire first season of Portlandia plus a couple of screeners for Season 2 yesterday. And I have to say I was struck by how much the show, despite obvious differences like not having a main character or a profound devotion to public service, reminds me of Parks and Recreation*.
Portlandia’s still in the place that Parks and Recreation was early in its run when it was building the framework of concepts the show would eventually rest on, like the Women and Women First Bookstore, the angry bicyclist, or the mayor’s office. A lot of what’s fun about Parks and Recreation is seeing how familiar characters react to strange circumstances, like a cult, or a visiting Venezuelan delegation, and similarly, I think what works about Portlandia is seeing how the fictional city incorporates everything from high-concept homeless people to a chicken farm that doubles as a cult. Both shows have their audience surrogates, whether its stenographer Ethel Beavers on Parks and Recreation or the older woman at the library during the hide and seek game in Portlandia, who function as escape valves for the shows’ ridiculousness, but also as a wistful reminder that even though we’re outsiders too, maybe we could pull off living in these worlds we like so much. We can have a Pawnee or Portland of the mind if we want it enough.
I also really appreciate the way both shows use politicians. In Parks and Recreation, Councilman Hauser is a permanent straight man, while Councilman Dexhart is the kind of person who would be “high on nitrous and cocaine during the cave sex…which, by the way, I heard he was.” They define the poles of Pawnee, from solid citizen to oblivious sex maniac, situating our main characters solidly in between. And because in Pawnee, government is the closest thing to religion, Mayor Walter Gunderson doesn’t appear on-screen, though his presence is felt, particularly by Leslie, a true believer. Similarly, Kyle McLachlan’s kindly, infuriating Portlandia mayor epitomizes his city. His big scandal is a crime of taste: playing bass in a reggae band. He’s fascinated by what technology can do but totally unsophisticated about it. And he sees past the point of everything to the details: Portland’s baseball team will never get off the ground, unlike Leslie’s baseball diamond, up and running in a single day, but Batty Batterson will be an all-time great mascot:
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*To be fair, I do tend to think everything would be a little better with a dash of Pawnee. AV Club critic Zack Handlen has suggested that I just want Leslie Knope to visit every show. To which I say, well, not The Wire because I think Baltimore would just make Leslie too sad and we wouldn’t get to see Ron Swanson dancing in a tiny hat and veil to make up for it.