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Portlandia was the perfect Obama-era comedy series, and that’s why it had to go

Photo: Scott Green/IFC

Portlandia debuted its first episode—which famously opened with “The Dream Of The ’90s,” an anthem celebrating a place where “people are still talking about saving the planet and forming bands,” “young people go to retire,” and “the Bush administration never happened”—on January 21, 2011, two years into Barack Obama’s first term. It’ll air its last a little less than two months from now, smack in the middle of the hot, damp armpit fart of Trump Year 2. Over the course of those seven intervening years, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein helped put a city (and a network) on the map with their gentle skewering of the mild discomforts of comfortable people, a general vibe suggesting that, now that the heavy lifting of social change was finished, we could all have some fun dialing into the more niche anxieties of modern life.

And now, of course, that laid-back, live-and-let-live attitude is dead.

The disconnect between the series’ typically relaxed tone, and the general free-floating anxiety attack we’ve all been stewing in for the last 365-odd days, is something that the show’s marketing team has tapped into as its eighth and final season approaches. Trailers for the season feature former feminist bookstore owners Toni and Candace debating the merits of starting their own Planned Parenthood, male businessmen talking over a female colleague in a desperate bid to be reassured that they’re not “bad,” and the fictional city’s eternally boyish Mayor railing at a journalist for daring to discuss Portland’s real-world epidemic of whiteness. (Proposed solution: DNA test the entire city, so that everyone can be comforted in the knowledge that they’re not actually entirely white.) The tone is not so much “woke” as it is “kept up by night terrors,” as a series that was fundamentally an expression of Obama-era “Thank god that’s all over with” sentiment spends its last year wrestling with what Donald Trump’s victory says about its light-hearted attitude toward first-world problems and 21st-century woes.


Brownstein shed some light on those initially optimistic assumptions during a Portlandia press event last year, talking about how far we’ve all traveled—not necessarily in a pleasant direction—since the series first debuted. “Our show started at a time, during the Obama administration, when we felt like, ‘Oh, we’re in this post-whatever society,’” Brownstein told the assembled reporters. “Post-race, post-gender, and that the house had been built. And all we had to do was decorate it, as a society. And now, it turns out, maybe we had a terrible foundation.”

Brownstein—who’s typically the more studious of the show’s creative leads when it comes to interviews, offering up quiet, thoughtful meditations in between Armisen’s regular stream of jokes—also talked about the ways “the current political climate” is unavoidable in its writers’ room. She noted that the show’s writers are inherently “porous people,” and that their real challenge is in finding ways to use the inescapable aura of politics to serve character relationships and stories, rather than being too “on the nose” with an explicitly inspired sketch. (It’s worth noting that, during a frequently political half-hour Q&A, the syllable “Trump” never passed between her lips.)

It’s not that Portlandia has ever been intentionally apolitical, exactly; even before entries like 2016’s scathing, men’s rights activist-mocking “What About Men?” the show wore its host city’s left-leaning politics on its sleeve. (Its most frequent stock character being a sort of liberal doofus who’s either deeply impressed or visibly anxious about their perceived moral strengths.) But there’s a reason that the guy who runs the city, Kyle MacLachlan’s Mayor, is functionally a big kid in an adult’s body: Portlandia is an existentially safe space (back before that phrase somehow morphed into a bizarre right-wing slur).

Mayor presides over a city-wide playground, one that’s full of people acting out the grown-up versions of their childhood fantasies, by people who don’t have to worry about their families being destroyed, or their rights trampled over. Whether it comes in the form of competitive hide-and-seek leagues, or just watching Brownstein and Armisen goof around in a warehouse while they make fun of all the cheap crap people are always trying to sell you for your phone, Portlandia is built on the promise that it’s all going to turn out okay. In 2011, with Barack Obama beaming daily out at the world from the White House, that freedom to stop worrying about the world and just do “you” felt attainable, visible from your window regardless of your distance from the real-world Oregon. In 2018, a world of consequence-free indulgence feels a hell of a lot further away.

We should be clear about something: Portlandia was always going to end this year, regardless of who won the big prize in 2016. (Eight seasons is a damn long run for any sketch series that isn’t Saturday Night Live.) But Trump’s victory still felt like a retroactive death knell for the show, a widespread political statement that that dream of the ’90s might be well and truly dead. Like some kind of beautiful but easily disturbed freshwater fish, Portlandia was a product of a dangerously hope-rich environment. And while it’ll be fascinating to see how well it can swim during this last batch of episodes, we can’t really blame it if it doesn’t get very far in a world where the chemicals it was born and bathed in—things like safety, equality, comfort, and, most especially, that Obama-propagated idea that “Things are going to be okay”—are suddenly in such drastically short supply.


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