Culture

From 'Portlandia' to Where'd You Go, Bernadette: Satire's Not Dead, Long Live Satire!

Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein in 'Portlandia'/Image courtesy of IFC
Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein in 'Portlandia'/Image courtesy of IFC

For anyone living among the natty-bearded, organic meat curing, home-grown vegetable pickling, bulky spectacle-wearing section of any mid-to-large-size U.S. urban center, there are few pleasures greater than watching “Portlandia” lovingly skewer the hipsteratti. And after a recent series of videos hit YouTube teasing the new season of Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen’s Pacific Northwest satire, which debuts on Friday, the IFC skit show has built up a head of buzz to rival the best home-brewed craft beer.

Some have complained that the conceit of the show can wear thin after a few episodes of watching Brownstein and Armisen dressed up in the peasant-chic ensembles of yesteryear playing meta versions of themselves quizzing waitresses on the genealogy of their humanely raised chickens, but rarely has pop culture so precisely nailed the audience it’s courting at the precise moment it’s surging in the zeitgeist. Woody Allen once noted that “comedy is tragedy plus time.” But Brownstein and Armisen have effectively eliminated the turnaround time on social satire, making "Portlandia" all the more impressive, despite its self-referential limitations.

There's an argument to be made that we've reached a particularly fertile moment for satirists in all media. Seth MacFarlane’s unsparing take on the La-Z-Boy breed of the American male that turned "Family Guy" into the most profitable show on TV also translated into the breakout comedy hit of the year with “Ted” and yielded him a coveted gig as this year’s Oscar host. The coming weeks will also see the mid-season debuts of two HBO comedies featuring some of the most astute social commentary to hit the small screen since Stephen Colbert first declared that “truthiness will set you free.” The first is “Enlightened,” which debuts January 13 and stars Laura Dern as an ambitious media exec who turns to New Age spirituality to recover from a recent nervous breakdown. "Enlightened" brilliantly captures the mainstreaming of yoga and meditation among urban stress-cases. Premiering on the same night is “Girls,” Lena Dunham’s vanity-free take on the knotty state of sex, fame, and friendship among today’s twentysomethings.

The year 2012 was also a banner year for satirical fiction. Novelists showed up with their knives sharpened, slicing into everything from sanctimonious Seattle parents (Where’d You Go, Bernadette, which will be getting the big-screen treatment) to Washington’s craven approach to geopolitics (They Eat Puppies, Don’t They) to the low-hanging fruit that is Hollywood (Beautiful Ruins and Dead Stars). Ironically, film was the only genre this year where satire was in short supply. So anyone who dares declare irony dead need only turn on, tune in, or drop out.

Feel free to weigh in here with a few of your favorite satires of 2012.