2014 was a horrifying year for global news, from the Ebola crisis to the rise of ISIS to the kidnapping of 276 girls from a school in Nigeria. The domestic news cycle, meanwhile, was dominated by a series of police killings of unarmed black men (and boys), and the demonstrations and outrageous grand jury proceedings that followed them. Meanwhile, this week’s headlines, which include “the worst terrorist attack in Europe since the attacks in London in July of 2005” and the bombing of an NAACP office in Colorado Springs, don’t bode well for 2015. But you wouldn’t know any of this visiting Portland — sorry, Portlandia — where young-at-heart white people of all ages are still keeping the dream of the ’90s alive, five seasons later.
To be fair, perhaps the new season of Portlandia was written and filmed before the past year’s somber events — and, more importantly for the show’s purposes, the cultural conversation that has surrounded them — had time to sink in. But something tells me that even if the timing were different, the chances of seeing Portlandia get political would still have been slim. Despite Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen’s best efforts to reinvigorate their hipster-and-yuppie satire after a few seasons of diminishing returns, it’s this dissonance with the mood of the culture that suggests the show’s moment has passed.
Now, before you phone the outrage police, please know that I’m not the kind of person who thinks that every cultural product should be explicitly political. And in fact, Portlandia‘s creeping irrelevance has less to do with a change in lived realities than with a shifting zeitgeist: Portlandia is a show that lovingly pokes fun at white, “alternative,” and middle- or upper-middle-class preciousness. Its characters live in a bubble. Their vague political allegiances (Toni and Candace’s feminism, Spike’s bike activism, last season’s “ecoterrorists”) are just vehicles for their narcissism. While that’s a keen and correct observation about armchair/dilettante liberals, Portlandia clearly loves its characters too much to ever frame their actions as alarming. We’re supposed to see their narcissism as adorable.
In fact, as funny as these characters’ narcissism (which is to say, the narcissism of comfortable white progressives — a group from which, for the record, I can’t entirely exclude myself) can be, it’s also indefensible. It was always indefensible. But now that we’re having a more urgent and robust public conversation about the real effects of racial and economic inequality in America, it’s conspicuously indefensible. Just as the zeitgeist turned against the rich-kid antics of Gossip Girl when the financial crisis took hold in late 2008, it’s recently become all but impossible to see complacent, self-congratulatory white liberalism as sweet or harmless. The difference between the two shows is that Portlandia is even more dependent on the zeitgeist than Gossip Girl was — because the pleasure of Portlandia is in its canny observations about the world it depicts. For the show to survive in 2015, the tone of those observations would need to change.
Instead, Brownstein and Armisen have opted to shake up the new season by rejiggering Portlandia‘s format. Presumably because sketches were no longer yielding memes on the level of “Put a Bird on It” or “The Dream of the ’90s,” each of the first two episodes of Season 5 tells a single story about one set of fan-favorite characters. In the premiere, we discover how Toni and Candace came to co-own Women & Women First; Episode 2 follows the caper that ensues when Nina starts pestering Lance (they’re the gender-flipped “cacao” couple) to propose.
Both episodes illustrate why Portlandia has begun to feel so anachronistic. The glimpse into Toni and Candace’s past, where each was a high-level book-industry executive, raises the uncomfortable question of whether the show is mocking the retro sexism of the women’s former bosses, the pair’s own over-the-top yet unquestionably justified feminist awakening, or (most likely) both. Still, the season premiere is better by a mile than the Lance-and-Nina episode, where the only joke — as ever with these characters — is really Brownstein’s artificially deepened voice and Armisen’s effeminate mannerisms.
Indefensible or not, I loved Portlandia when it premiered, and enjoyed it fairly consistently through the third season. And I know its creators aren’t too naive to realize that its satire could — and should — get darker (Brownstein, at least, has a sophisticated understanding of politics that comes through in her critical writing and the music of her recently reunited band, Sleater-Kinney). Maybe Season 5 will surprise me as it progresses, or a sixth season will give Portlandia time to adapt to the changing zeitgeist. If not, what was once TV’s timeliest sketch show might well end up the cable equivalent of a New Yorker cartoon.