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.

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Laura Bogart

Laura Bogart is a featured writer for Salon and a regular contributor to DAME magazine. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, CityLab, The Guardian, SPIN, Complex, IndieWire, GOOD, and Refinery29, among other publications. Her first novel, Don't You Know That I Love You?, is forthcoming from Dzanc.