UK series Black Mirror is being lauded as the first show that really tells the truth about our dystopian tech destiny. But the best critique of technology in today’s culture is not this science fiction import. For the most scathing commentary on the high-tech world we’ve designed for ourselves, you have to watch Portlandia.
The series’ fifth season finished airing last week on IFC (full episodes are on YouTube), and I went down a P-hole, rewatching every episode all the way back to 2011. I expected to find some greater takeaway about artisanal culture or the evolution of urbanism. Or, like, raw food restaurant trends.
I was stunned when I realised that the series’ greatest strength comes from its disturbingly on-point takedowns of technology, each delivered like a crisp smack of an iPad to the back of our Instagram-addled heads. So many anti-technology diatribes miss the mark because their authors are clearly late-adopting haters. But it’s obvious that Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein are tech fans at heart.
It’s easy to lose sight of the show’s intelligent vision when 85 per cent of the chatter about it revolves around the chirpy pop culture chorus “Put a bird on it.” And yes, this not-so-alternate universe inhabited by bike messengers and coffee baristas focuses heavily on the hand-crafted rejection of contemporary mainstream culture. Except that’s also why the tech-focused sketches are so skewering: Even though the characters pride themselves on their pickling and sustainable jewellery-making, they still can’t bear to delete their Facebook accounts.
In fact, it’s one particularly good sketch about leaving Facebook which launched my theory that Portlandia tackles these issues better than anyone else. In order to remove herself from the internet, Carrie goes to what looks like a bank branch to declare social media bankruptcy. When she goes to see Fred at a bar, he doesn’t recognise her without an avatar to validate her existence. At the end, she is placed in a room with the handful of other people without online presences. It’s hilarious, but it also confronts our deepest fears about being forgotten when we don’t file a status update.
Each tech sketch serves as a kind of worst-case scenario for all the products and services that touch our lives. The owners of a feminist bookstore attempt to confront a negative Yelp reviewer in real life. A sharing economy startup implodes spectacularly. Patton Oswalt plays a man who becomes famous for his witty Evite responses. The city buys a 3D printer, as if this might be the answer to all civic problems — “Portland is finally a world-class city!”
But it’s really the characters’ relationships with television that highlight our most bizarre and hypocritical behaviour with technology. “I don’t have a TV” is the smug refrain uttered by more than one character, but binge-watching shows is a running theme. In season 2, characters played by Armisen and Brownstein alienate friends and lose jobs while watching all the episodes of
Battlestar Galactica. Their lives fall apart in the quest for one more episode. Yet, you know, we don’t watch TV.
Another sketch, “Spoiler Alert” is maybe one of the smartest pieces of TV-related satire in history, as four characters at a dinner party talk about how much they hate spoilers — and manage to reveal all the spoilers in the most talked-about shows.
Warning: Clip contains spoilers.
Looking back at some of the older episodes, it’s almost depressing how much Portlandia’s plots have mirrored real life. In an attempt to avoid the questionable labour practices of foreign-made fashion, two characters hire local seamstresses to make their clothes by hand in their home, and in turn, end up transforming their own basement into a sweatshop. It’s disarmingly poignant for a sketch comedy show — I found myself thinking for days about claims that Etsy sellers are essentially doing the same thing.
Like the way The Daily Show claims to cover fake news but really provides a maddeningly accurate evisceration of journalistic practices, Portlandia is purportedly about hipsters (I got almost all the way through the story without using that word) but it’s really shining a light on the perplexing dilemmas that we all face when we choose to buy into the latest hype. Who hasn’t had some version of this dramatic flashback montage like Carrie does when she
drops her iPhone? It’s all way too close to home.
And besides, isn’t sketch comedy the most palatable way to examine the stranglehold these concepts have on our lives? You could watch a show like Black Mirror to fret about the way technology will ruin civilisation in the future, or you could watch Portlandia to think about the way it’s ruining us today — and laugh your arse off while you’re at it.