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Portlandia on Blu-ray: Season One Season Two Season 3 Season 4

"Portlandia" Season One Blu-ray + DVD Review

Portlandia: Season One Blu-ray + DVD cover art - click to buy from Amazon.com Portlandia: Season One (2011)
Show, Blu-ray & DVD Details

Co-Executive Producers: Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein, Jonathan Krisel, Andrew Singer / Executive Producers: Lorne Michaels; Debbie Demontreux, Dan Pasternack, Jennifer Caserta, Evan Shapiro

Writers: Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein, Jonathan Krisel, Allison Silverman / Director: Jonathan Krisel

Regular Cast: Fred Armisen (Fred, Candace, Nina, Bryce Shivers, Bicycle Rights Activist, Jason, Dave, Peter, Daniel, Andrew, Anthony Warnicker, Robert Wilson, Eli, and Various Others), Carrie Brownstein (Carrie, Toni, Lance, Lisa Eversman, Melanie, Cath, Nance, Meg, Julia, Jennifer, Paul Warnicker, D'Arbie, Devon and Various Others)

Recurring Cast Members: Kyle MacLachlan (Mayor), Aubrey Plaza (Beth), Sam Adams (Mayor's Assistant)

Notable Guest Stars: Steve Buscemi (Bookstore Customer), Jason Sudeikis (Aliki), Ellen Bloodworth (Old Library Lady), Dana Millican (Dana the Waitress), Ian Karmel (Carrie's Boyfriend), Aimee Mann (Herself), Sarah McLachlan (Herself), Edie McClurg (Secretary), Kumail Nanjiani (Johnny the Cell Phone Guy), Selma Blair (Franny Walker/Rebecca Malloy), Jenny Conlee (Sparkle Pony), Colin Meloy (Echo Echo), James Mercer (Echo Echo), Corin Tucker (Echo Echo), Gus Van Sant (Himself), Doug Lussenhop (Hotel Manager), Heather Graham (Heather F.), Nick Kroll (Daniel Prison)

Running Time: 134 Minutes (6 episodes) / Rating: Not Rated (TV-14 on air)

1.78:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic) / Dolby Stereo 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: None; Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Season 1 Airdates: January 21, 2011 - February 25, 2011
Blu-ray Release Date: December 6, 2011 / Suggested Retail Price: $26.95
Two single-sided discs (1 BD-25 & 1 DVD-9) / Cardboard Book in Slipcover
Also available on standalone DVD ($16.95 SRP), Amazon Instant Video, and HD Amazon Instant Video

Buy Portlandia: Season One from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD DVD Instant Video HD Instant Video

If a typical sitcom isn't working for you, you stop watching and write it off. If a sketch comedy isn't working, you need only wait a few minutes for the blank slate of a new scenario and a fresh opportunity to entertain. All sketch comedy series are hit and miss, even the 37-year-old institution that is "Saturday Night Live." That is part of its appeal, seeing and, as importantly, hearing (i.e. the studio audience) what ideas and celebrity guests work and which do not.
Those that do work lend themselves to discussion and revisitation unlike anything else in television. Who ever thinks of and rewatches their favorite scenes of episodic programming? And who doesn't wish to rewatch an unusually funny or much-recommended "SNL" sketch? As long as the hits outnumber the misses, all is well.

"Portlandia" looks like a vehicle a former SNL cast member might accept to stay visible. But in fact, this is a side project for Fred Armisen, the 10-year SNL veteran who remains an active presence on that weekly late night fixture. The half-hour program stars Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, a guitarist/vocalist for the disbanded rock group Sleater-Kinney. The two friends conceived "Portlandia" with writer/producer/director Jonathan Krisel, a current SNL scribe who has worked on almost every facet of the various Adult Swim shows of comedy duo Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. This little series airs Friday nights on cable's IFC (Independent Film Channel) with not only the blessing but also an executive producing credit of SNL head honcho Lorne Michaels.

If you recognized any of the non-SNL references in the last paragraph, then you can already guess that, much like Sleater-Kinney and Tim & Eric, "Portlandia" commands the label "alternative", one proudly worn by IFC, whose current slogan is "Always On. Slightly Off." The alternative culture of Portland, Oregon, where every sketch is set (and filmed, in between seasons of "SNL"), is at the heart of the series, as the first bit establishes. Two Los Angeles citizens excitedly relocate to the city where "young people go to retire" and where "the dream of the '90s is alive", an alternative universe where Gore beat Bush.

Portland artists Lisa Eversman (Carrie Brownstein) and Bryce Shivers (Fred Armisen) put birds on things. Toni (Carrie Brownstein) and Nina (Fred Armisen) run the bookshop Women & Women First with a feminist fist.

Portland provides the series with a fun flavor and you don't need to know the Pacific Northwestern city to recognize and appreciate the targets. Environmentalists, hipsters, artists, and small business owners all feature. That doesn't have to be your kind of scene to enjoy "Portlandia"; it merely distinguishes and unifies sketches about human eccentricities.

Like many of today's acclaimed smart comedies, this finds the humor in awkward situations and ironic predicaments. Krisel brings the offbeat rhythms, editing-driven design, and unconventional humor of Tim & Eric with him. Armisen manages to shed the broad aim and responsive studio crowd of "SNL" to be entirely at ease with edgier material never destined to transcend a narrow niche audience. (Last week's Season 2 premiere drew 500,000 viewers, which was actually a 39% over the series' January 2011 debut.) The only other credited writer joining those three co-executive producers is Allison Silverman, whose background of "Late Night with Conan O'Brien", "The Daily Show", and "The Colbert Report" makes her a natural fit.

Watch "Dream of the '90s", the musical opening sketch of "Portlandia":

Also fitting well is a large and eclectic supply of guest stars. You might expect appearances from go-to TV comedy types and you get some of those in Aubrey Plaza ("Parks and Recreation"), Nick Kroll ("The League"), and Armisen's fellow Not Ready for Prime Time Player Jason Sudeikis. But Season One also gets nice work from less obvious places, like Aimee Mann, Steve Buscemi, Selma Blair, Edie McClurg, Gus Van Sant, Heather Graham, and The Decemberists' Jenny Conlee. No one seems to have and provide as much fun as Kyle MacLachlan, who plays the easygoing mayor of Portland in three episodes. Real Portland mayor Sam Adams shows up twice as his assistant.

In anticipation of last week's Season 2 premiere, the first season of "Portlandia" came to DVD and a Blu-ray + DVD in December. The boldface means we review the latter two-disc, two-format combo pack here, beginning with a closer look at the six featured episodes.

SNL's Jason Sudeikis guest stars as Aliki, the charming farmer/cult leader at the end of two food-conscious potential chicken eaters' research journey. With the music industry in the toilet, Aimee Mann has to clean houses nowadays, as two fans finds out in "Aimee."

1. Farm (22:28) (Originally aired January 21, 2011)
Peter and Nance, a couple wanting to research the chicken they're about to order, wind up at the polygamist cult leader's (guest Jason Sudeikis) farm where it was raised. A technologically-sapped man tries mind-fi. Steve Buscemi plays a man forced to buy something from a feminist bookshop whose bathroom he uses.
Portland's adult hide and seek league has a match at a library.

2. A Song for Portland (21:23) (Originally aired January 28, 2011)
Fred and Carrie meet with the Mayor (Kyle MacLachlan), who hires them to write a new theme song for the city's tourism campaign. In addition, a women's studies student (Aubrey Plaza) has difficulty getting help in the feminist bookshop, two coffee shop diners are troubled by an unaccounted for tied-up dog, a couple chooses "cacao" as their safe word, and a store promotes the value of putting a bird on things.

3. Aimee (22:44) (Originally aired February 4, 2011)
Aimee Mann cleans the house of a couple of excited, demanding fans. Two Japanese girls enjoy the adventure of a coffee shop trip. The "cacao" couple tries out a new vibrating product. A new pole dancer shadows her friend on the job. The frugal lifestyles of dumpster divers Daniel and Meg are documented.

Portland's missing mayor (Kyle MacLachlan) is found sporting a soul patch and playing bass in a real roots reggae band. Denied access to the Blunderbuss Festival venue she is to play, Sparkle Pony (The Decemberists' Jenny Conlee) lets her mind wander.

4. Mayor is Missing (22:05) (Originally aired February 11, 2011)
Fred and Carrie look for Portland's missing mayor and in the process have to endure a complicated cell phone family plan sign-up. Super literate friends compare notes on recent periodicals. A young woman (Plaza) gets strange, detailed house sitting instructions. Julia (Brownstein) has her first day at a hip, spacious ad agency.

5. Blunderbuss (22:20) (Originally aired February 18, 2011)
Portland's annual film and music festival is upon us, which finds the staff of the Deuce Hotel starstruck and a solemn, pensive musician named Sparkle Pony (Jenny Conlee) unable to get in to her gig. There are also clips from the Warnicker Brothers' indie romance Finding Mr. Write (starring Selma Blair) and the Roving Singles play a woman's acupuncture session.

6. Baseball (22:41) (Originally aired February 25, 2011)
The Mayor asks Fred and Carrie to put together Portland's first Major League Baseball team. Unemployment is eliminated by people starting and finishing each other's sentences. The values of hand-crafted light bulbs are extolled. A coolly-received new arrival to the feminist bookshop's journaling class (Heather Graham) is given mixed signals. Chefs get really into a newsletter photo shoot. And obnoxious attendees get set up for an outdoor movie viewing.

Meg (Carrie Brownstein) and Daniel (Fred Armisen) return home with many dumpster diving treasures in hand.

VIDEO and AUDIO

The Blu-ray's 1.78:1 1080p picture is flawless, delivering vibrancy and clarity even beyond HD broadcasts. Sound is presented merely in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, which gives it less kick than it could have (and should have, considering the musical bend). Still, it is crisp and clear just like such a recent show should be. Volume levels are slightly inconsistent and sadly, neither subtitles nor closed captions are provided on either format for either the show or the extras.

The DVD is no slouch either. Most will consider its more compressed, lower-resolution picture just fine and the stereo soundtrack is pretty comparable to the Blu-ray's.

Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein crack up while filming a scene of dumpster diver cooking. Two enthusiastic emergency medical technicians (Armisen and Brownstein) are repeatedly disappointed in this deleted sketch.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein, and Jonathan Krisel supply audio commentary on all six episodes. It is less engaging than you would think and hope, with the three's dry relevations and observations giving way to silence and light laughter far too often.
Still, some notes of interest emerge, most often on filming experiences and on sketches' inspirations and developments.

On the video front, where most extras are presented in HD, things begin with a Bloopers reel (4:45), which amuses with cast crack-ups (many fueled by ad-libs) and fumbles.

Next, come two extended scenes (4:08) and seven deleted scenes (16:11), most of which run between one and three minutes. Both groups are sorely lacking a "Play All" option and have to be viewed one at a time, which is especially annoying on BD, where you're subjected to the loud menu music after each. The content itself is pretty decent, mostly on par with what's on the show and just cut for timing considerations. Deletions include the journeys of overexcited ambulance drivers, Fred and Carrie taking extreme measures to make sure their Portland song accurately reflects all of the city's nationalities, talk of Aerosmith at Women & Women First, and the exotic casual meetings of two acquaintances.

Per "his request", Fred Armisen speaks before the Oregon Episcopalian School Class of 2011 from a podium that looks like he's riding an eagle. Fred and Carrie comfort each other over a store inexplicably not being open in this Thunderant short.

"Fred Armisen Speaks to Oregon Episcopalian School Graduates" (11:41) is exactly what it sounds like. The comedian delivers the commencement speech for the Portland area high school's 78-student Class of 2011 with an appropriate mix of sincerity and humor.

Thunderant Videos are two online shorts (presented in SD) with which Armisen and Brownstein's comedy partnership began. "Closed" (3:59) finds two friends throwing a tantrum over a clothing store inexplicably not being open. In "One Man Show" (7:10), Fred performs a banal, offensive, politically-charged, hat-based one-man show in a theater empty aside from Carrie. These are both fun, though be warned they contain a lot of profanity.

"Season 2 Preview" is a 1-minute commercial for the current season that plays silent clips from upcoming episodes to music.

The DVD and Blu-ray main menu opens with this map of characters resembling the inner packaging. Location footage used in the opening credits and transitions also spice up the DVD main menu.

Gladly, VSC doesn't take the prevailing view that only Blu-ray viewers deserve all the bells and whistles; every "Portlandia" bonus feature appears on both the Blu-ray and the DVD.

In fitting with the show's organic vibe, Season One is packaged in a thin book (the height of a standard Blu-ray case and just a touch wider) of recycled paper which opens to display an offbeat map of the city and its characters' whereabouts. The discs claim opposite pockets inside and the book is topped by a textured, cardboard slipcover.

The menu animates the same map of the packaging before playing transition and opening title clips of the city to a loud loop of the theme song, instrumental portions of Washed Out's "Feel It All Around". Pop Up menus work only over the show and though the disc doesn't support bookmarks, it gladly does resume playback just like a DVD. Episodes are divided into an appropriate number of chapter scenes, but there are no chapter selection menus, something that should be a standard for sketch comedy, as should character selection for recurring bits.

With stretched lobes and a chin beard, Fred Armisen plays a recurring bike-riding, whistle-blowing bicycle rights activist. Two Japanese girls are excited to discover a magical place they call Coffee Land.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

"Portlandia" will certainly not be everyone's cup of tea, but that allows it to be sharper and more inventive for those who enjoy it. You can count me among that group.
Not having to deliver the ratings and volume of network television frees up this IFC sketch comedy to do its own thing as it sees fit. Most of it's pretty funny in an offbeat, intellectual, hipster kind of way.

VSC's Blu-ray + DVD set delivers outstanding picture, solid sound, a very strong collection of bonus features, and the flexibility of two formats. Though it lists for $10 more than the DVD by itself, online discounting puts them close enough to make the combo pack practically a no-brainer for any fan in a Blu-ray household. Whether you start with this Season One release or jump into the ongoing Season 2, "Portlandia" is definitely worth a look.

Buy Portlandia: S1 from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD / DVD / Instant Video / HD Instant Video

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Reviewed January 13, 2012.



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