Season 7 of Portlandia premiered last night at 7 p.m. on IFC. The comedy show, which stars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, continues to make fun of white, urban, progressive people who would never vote for Trump—indeed, who, if given the chance, would for Bernie Sanders.
The question is: Should we really mock these people? For sure, they have their problems; they are not completely free from the racist history of the US, and many of them are entangled in a real estate market that displaces poor people of color. But politically, they support universal healthcare, taxing the rich, increasing spending on public education, improving public transportation, developing alternative forms of energy, and addressing climate change. These issues, which are deeply serious, and if enacted would improve the lives of millions of Americans, and billions of earthlings, are at present in a political environmental that is totally hostile. What is there to laugh at here? I would prefer to watch Alec Baldwin's Trump on SNL.
But even before the Trump era, the show's relationship with its subject, Portland, was rocky. This point was eloquently made to me by Monica Drake, a Portland-based novelist, lecturer, and critic. "The shallow, mocking style of humor that's the signature move of Portlandia's sketch comedy is inherently a kind of insidious way to tear down the work of people who aim for conscious living," she said. "It might look more hip than some right wing work, and of course there's the whole riot grrrl street cred involved. That Sleater-Kinny association could imply that the show is radical, empowering or somehow challenges the dominate paradigm. Instead, Portlandia flattens out and caricatures anybody who steps outside the status quo. It's been damaging, culturally."
Drake continued: "It's a shaming approach, really, if you give the show any weight at all. It allows people who don't need to leave their houses to assume they know what it means to eat locally, or to shop at a feminist bookstore, or to be transgender, even, and those things are then pre-mocked."
And: "What Portlandia has done is pretended to have a handle on something, while they oversimplify it so the masses can consume a weak version of a real vision, and laugh like there was nothing to the efforts to live in alternative ways to begin with. It shuts sincerity down. It's marketing a seemingly alternative world view at the very same instant that struggle to be alternative is processed and pre-packaged like a bad school lunch, by the show itself, and then presented as though it had no valuable substance."
Drake concluded with: "I'm not sure there is all that much difference between Portlandia mocking the characters they focus on and Trump mocking a reporter with a disability, because Trump thinks he's being funny. It's all the same mentality. You can create humor that works toward a better world."