Essay

Portlandia and Performative Liberalism

On Portlandia and its incredible skewering of "performative liberalism" in America.

In a marketplace crowded with irreverent comedies that move at fairly rapid fire pace, Portlandia can feel both so alike, and yet so distinct from them all. For one thing: its sketches are mostly under five minutes long, but then again, many of those sketches feature recurring characters.

giphyIt is, in a word: odd. On the one hand it caters to the short attention span so many shows are fighting to keep hold of viewers in spite of. On the other: it rewards engagement and ongoing empathy with its various colorful characters. It’s worth nothing that it isn’t until later seasons that Portlandia started having episodes with long form focuses on single character sets (like the back story for Toni and Candace, the feminist bookstore proprietors).

I started watching it this past week, and I thoroughly respect its mastery of structure I described above. It’s well rationed and paced comedy, and it goes without saying that both Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein are brilliant. However, the primary reason I got back into it was thanks to an interview with Carrie Brownstein on the It’s Been a Minute podcast with Sam Sanders (highly recommend), and Sam’s own take on the message and themes of Portlandia that Carrie concurs with: that it’s really skewering a varied and diverse culture of “performative liberalism” in America.

GothI don’t know if the show truly digs in as deeply as it eventually does within its first season, but it’s fully immersed in that by the end of its second season onward. I’m no conservative, far from, but the notion of liberalism as an “identity” or more feebly, an image to put on and perform has a host of problems. There’s plenty of ink already spilled about the disappointment of liberals who talk big but don’t extend themselves to meaningful action and ally-ship. Portlandia holds a mirror up to so many different forms of that, and gives a damn good set of laughs doing so.

giphy-1I can’t recommend it highly enough, and especially with that core theme in mind, its brilliance really shines through. It’s what I’ve had on as background noise the past few days (among other things that I’ll probably share thoughts on soon), and with the show wrapping up its run, it’ll end up being a great catalogue of a moment in history of (white liberal) American culture.

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