The decline of Portlandia
How a show that was once fabulous became a little too frivolous for our time
Portlandia, which enters its eighth and final season Thursday, has transformed the limits of television comedy. Creators and performers Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen reinvigorated sketch comedy, liberating the format from the squeaky hamster wheel of SNL-style stagnation, wherein a series of zany figures appear, whack-a-mole, to do mundane things in wild-and-craaaaaaazy ways and then disappear. Instead, Portlandia's unique genius has been creating and sustaining micro-narratives around characters who embody very recognizable archetypes — the doofy, mismatched hipster couple, the well-intentioned but out-of-touch politician, and the second-wave feminists who exist on moon tea and righteous indignation — until those narratives have, in subtle, almost subterranean ways, banded together into actual arcs that shade those archetypes with nuance.
The show's vision of the titular Portland isn't just as an easily satirized haven for eccentrics and cool kids, but as a kind of honeycomb for its own specific, and spectacular, set of weirdos: Toni and Candace, the owners of the bookstore Women and Women First; type-A outdoors-people Dave and Kath; and, of course, the Mayor. Even Fred and Carrie's eponymous characters, the supposed "normals," get storylines — falling in and out of love, being overwhelmed by technology, and even debating whether to leave the city — that are, in milder forms, quite recognizable to most early 30-something urbanites.
But now, in our current political climate, these well-heeled rites of passage seem too privileged to be compelling. Watching Portlandia these days is like chewing a piece of slightly stale candy; you can still taste the sweet spots, but mostly, it's just bland. So it's perfectly fitting that the show should call it a wrap as we wade another year deeper into the swamp of Trumplandia.
For years, Portlandia has been my binge of choice for sick days or feeling-down days because the assorted oddballs who inhabit its enclave of coffee shops and nightclubs, surrealistically tasteful office spaces, and houses they could in no way realistically afford. But within that careworn kookiness, the show has made a singular, and very trenchant, point about the creative class that watched it and wanted to laugh along: All too often, they willfully conflated the trappings of a lifestyle — the pillows with birds stitched on them, the home micro-brew kits, the acceptances to elite private preschools — with an actual life. The series was at its best when deftly skewering the hippies and hipsters and sharply chic professional class still living the "Dream of the '90s." That dream world, presented in the very first sketch of the very first episode, is a halcyon land where "Gore won" and the "Bush administration never happened;" where getting reservations for the hottest brunch spot is a legitimate vision quest; and where "young people go to retire."
On its surface, Portlandia's wishful concept of youthful retirement looks like somnambulant hipsters stumbling into the coffee shop at noon or start-ups where everyone just sorta hangs out. And even if these archetypes are, at times, satirical fruits so over-ripe that they sag to the ground, the show still teases an uneasy truth about the sustained disengagement of well-heeled white progressives — their intellectual, and ethical, retirement from the reality that, yes, the Bush years really did happen. Portlandia's vision of an uncomplicatedly capitalist, blissfully homogenous utopia makes it an unintentionally ideal reflection of the Obama era, a time when many lefties and progressives complacently, mistakenly, believed that the country would keep effortlessly bending its arc toward social justice — leaving them free to cultivate an artisanal knot collection.
This swaddled sense that the world won't ever get too bad for you, or for anyone you claim to care about, played out in election after election where people who talk the talk about protecting reproductive rights or civil rights or the environment don't walk the walk to the polling place. Broad swathes of the left — for whom the 2016 election should have been easy: To Trump or Not to Trump, is that even a question? — turned to a pageant of untenable purity. Portlandia has always been affectionate toward its zealot brunchers and adult hide-and-seek league champions and their quirky little cocoon. The show's natural end-point, then, is inevitably the emergence of the Trump administration — which is what happened when too many of us forgot that the Bush administration ever happened.
Even the town that gave Portlandia its name has expressed misgivings about the show's louche view of progressivism: The Portland bookstore In Other Words (where many of the Women and Women First scenes were shot) issued a scathing statement decrying the series for glamorizing gentrification, whitewashing the store's worldview, and treating Armisen's Candace as a Birkenstock-clad version of Bugs Bunny in a dress, which "throws trans femmes under the bus by holding up their gender presentation for mockery and ridicule." You can't just "put a bird" on that, and call it a good look.
Of course, Portlandia can't be expected to single-handedly remedy, or even reflect, the terrors of economic disparity, racism, and transphobia — but its wink-and-nod and half-hearted shrug toward these issues doesn't play well — or, at least, as inconspicuously — under an administration that can doom and damn marginalized people with a single fiat by tweet. In an interview with HuffPost, Brownstein admitted, "I think people are realizing it was almost a privilege in some ways during the Obama administration to be able to tune out politics every once in awhile."
And that's exactly why the show no longer works. It is a relic of that era. Liberals and progressives have bigger concerns than brunch. Portlandia reflected sunnier, more frivolous days, and while it is a smart and warm-hearted show, this is the right time to put it to bed.