Technology’s encroachment on human experience has always been central to Portlandia’s skeptical yet ultimately accepting comic brio, and that remains the case in the first episode of the show’s sixth season. Not long into the premiere, the fortysomething couple played by Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein buys into a new system called You Had to Be There, which allows them to remotely attend a musical festival via a camera-equipped drone that streams live footage through oversized viewing helmets. This bit, redolent of the sardonic future envisioned by Woody Allen’s Sleeper, is relevant for its highly specific focus on how technological devices and businesses reflect or distort the passions of an endless line of subcultures.
Armisen and Brownstein, along with Portlandia’s co-creator, Jonathan Krisel, have shown equal amounts of warmth and skepticism toward individuals married to such cultures. The individuals that Armisen and Brownstein play may seem absurd in their wanting to remain hip while jettisoning the actual activities that garner this sense of being “with it,” but they’re not bad people or, more accurately, people unworthy of empathy.
How the aging hipster’s desire for comfort rubs up against his or her need to comprehend and enjoy new trends is also key to the subsequent episode. In it, a breakup leads two thirtysomethings, again played by the leads, to take up new relationships that cause them to socialize outside of their comfort zones. Armisen’s oafish dude dates a millennial (Zoë Kravitz) while Brownstein begins a relationship with a wealthy, cultured lesbian (Armisen). Portlandia has always smartly shown how relationships built on emotional closeness are more sustainable and fulfilling, and ultimately the ease, comfort, and intimacy of the original relationship here wins out.
The series is less successful in its depiction of the young and hip as airheads. The season premiere’s storyline is interwoven with the travails of two young concertgoers, played by Brownstein and Natasha Lyonne, who follow an attractive hipster with a prominent man-bun from a rest stop to the music festival. The girls are shallow idiots, arguing about whether or not they’re going to go “boy crazy” at the festival. The entire bit hardly digs beyond the silliness of people who think man-buns are cool, while the other storylines touch not only on the desperation of looking and feeling young as one gets older, but also never lose sight of the knowledge of self that comes with age, a certainty about what makes you happy.
Given Portlandia’s flippant depiction of youth, the plots involving middle-aged characters feel more resonant and sincere, and as such funnier. To a degree, the inventive technologies that the series lampoons are meant to represent the creativity and smarts of the younger generation, but young creative types are rarely portrayed without the ultimate uselessness of their inventions being underlined. Portlandia’s focus is primarily on aging progressives, but when it diverts from this subject, the series exudes a certain indifference and cynicism. As it ages, the show’s creators are seemingly losing touch with the empathetic truth that there are as many self-possessed and complicated twentysomethings as there are what one might call “adults.”