In 2011, just midway into President Barack Obama’s first term in office, IFC’s “Portlandia” debuted with an ode to the liberal bubble of Portland, Oregon.
“The dream of the ‘90s is alive in Portland,” sang the show’s stars, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, along with other young, flannel-wearing people.
The song celebrated Portland’s insular and nostalgia-prone weirdness. But ever since President Donald Trump’s unexpected election last November, people around the country have been re-examining liberal bubbles and the potential downsides that can come with living in them.
On Thursday night, one of the final episodes of Season 7, the show’s penultimate season, will debut on IFC. Although Fred and Carrie created this storyline for the episode, entitled “Portland Secedes,” before the election of Trump, it’s hard to separate the episode (or the entire season for that matter) from the pervading existence of Trump’s America.
As such, The Huffington Post spoke to Fred and Carrie about how the rise of Trump affected their writers’ room, how his presidency puts a new viewing lens on “Portlandia,” and whether Americans should keep their cultural bubbles.
The Q&A below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How the rise of Trump impacted the writers’ room
The creators have said that for past seasons, Portland residents’ high level of “optimism” led to many sketch ideas. Despite not knowing the results of the election around the time you were developing Season 7, Trump’s rise was already still apparent. Did his campaign alter your approach to the characters?
Fred: Well, I mean, in the writers’ room, it came up a lot. But I think we try to avoid anything that’s too directly topical so that it has some shelf life. I think it has less to do with politics specific to an election as opposed to the politics that are happening in general. Like, whatever the general feeling is that year around that time. Because we don’t have the luxury of having, like, a live show, it’s a little less specific.
The value of protecting values
The “Portland Secedes” episode imagines Portland attempting to leave the United States to maintain its unique weirdness. A spoiler that’s necessary for context: They don’t succeed.
In light of the election results, it’s hard to not see the sketch as something of a parody of Trump’s America. Even so, it’s unclear whether the focus is Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, or whether you are going for a joke similar to a recent “Saturday Night Live” sketch, which imagined putting a dome on Brooklyn to preserve its bubble. Either way, was there actually an attempt at a political lens here?
Carrie: I do think the political climate permeated the writers’ room ― that echo chamber and that sense that things were quite partisan and everyone had kind of sorted themselves into categories ― culturally or by neighborhood or by city. And I think we’ve always been a show that is about one’s relationship to place.
So, it made sense that these characters in our world would be interested in kind of protecting things that they had built and value. I think on the entire political spectrum, everybody feels they’re sort of trying to protect their values. And I guess that’s just what these people are doing in a kind of comical and absurd way.
The opening scene of “Portland Secedes”
The case for keeping bubbles
In a 2015 interview with Good before the rise of Trump, Carrie said, “I think that you do have to create a bubble. And I think that anything that’s really been powerful starts with people ignoring the consensus and just focusing.”
A post-election hypothesis has been that Trump’s win came as a result of liberals living in a bubble that keeps “real America” hidden from them. But is there still any value to living in a bubble?
Fred: Well, as far as value goes, obviously it’s nicer to be in an environment where you feel comfortable. But it’s also clear that it’s probably not the most realistic thing. Also, on the other hand, I don’t know how we can avoid it. I mean, I suppose you can try to educate yourself, but just geographically, I think people are just drawn to a sort of kind of place and it just ends up being that way.
I think it’s unavoidable, but we have been able to sort of curate our surroundings. Even online so that you’re kind of giving yourself a lot of confidence in the way that you are.
Putting out Season 7 after Trump’s victory
After the election, audiences have put a political lens on work that was created before Trump’s win. Notably, the new A Tribe Called Quest album and “The Young Pope” both have been considered resonant and responsive works to Trump’s America, even though that couldn’t have been their original intent. How does it feel to have such a lens focused on Season 7?
Carrie: Yeah, I think that’s an inevitability. You know there’s almost a level of toxicity that we’re immersed in, and I think people are realizing it was almost a privilege in some ways during the Obama administration to be able to tune out politics every once in awhile. Or to be able to kind of exist in a space that didn’t feel violent or aggressive or confusing. But I think it’s important to remember there’s always been vulnerable and marginalized populations who have felt attacked and disenfranchised under any administration, just based on institutional disparities.
But I do think that it’s just the new lens that we examine all music and television and literature. I think everyone is searching for meaning and explanation and a way of making sense of some of the …. just the confusion. So, you can’t necessarily start out with the intention of making things clear for people. But I think the best kind of ― and most lasting ― artistic statements feel relevant when they’re happening, but also feel relevant in retrospect.
In some ways that’s been our goal always. It’s just that, the fact that people can watch the show now and still feel it was in this world ― not incongruous with this current administration ― is what we always set out to do. To feel part of something and part of something that will last.
How the election will continue to affect the show’s characters
Recently, Carrie performed at the Women’s March and told Vanity Fair that she feels there is a “a feeling of collective despair, uncertainty, and anxiety right now.” Even if the show doesn’t take aim at specific political moments, if there is a collective despair, would that inevitably bleed into the characters’ lives for Season 8, the final season?
Fred: It’s hard to tell, but [I have] a memory of the writers’ room and just feeling like, we had optimism then because we didn’t know what the result of the election was going to be. So there was a lot of discussion [about Trump], but I actually can’t remember what ― now that things are like this ― I can’t remember what the split was in the room.
We came up with the mens’ rights movement sketches as characters, but I still don’t know. I think that just came from a time where we thought maybe men were feeling unrepresented. It was a joke, really, but maybe it was more real than we imagined.
Carrie: Yeah, it was almost like we were still existing in a bubble of certainty, but at the same time, I think we felt a vulnerability. An encroaching vulnerability upon that certainty. And I remember that there was an anxiety that was creeping in ― realizing that what we assumed was in our future, might actually not happen.
And I think the most telling thing is when we tried to sort of move past the discussion ― which was at the time, the primaries and then the actual general election ― that we couldn’t. That we found, even in the preamble, that there were sort of fault-lines. We had to navigate that and I think we can see that in the writing. That we would land upon that place that felt a little unstable and try to kind of write from that.
I think a lot of our characters this season are sort of exploring change or disinheritance or a sense of, I don’t know, trouble ahead, I guess.
One of the sketches about men’s rights activists from Season 7
Fred and Carrie’s closing thoughts on contextualizing Season 7
Fred: The only thing I can think of is just the role of Portland. Now to me, it just represents a different kind of city. I personally just have this feeling of wanting to embrace it even more because I take it for granted less. That a whole city can have an identity like that. I think I just cherish it a little more now.
Carrie: I think I feel lucky that we have another season of “Portlandia” because, as much as it feels very necessary to write from a satirical perspective, I also feel the need to be able to see things through a lens of absurdity, because I think so much right now feels so out of whack as to be absurd. Verging on surreal.
And also people need to laugh. People always come back to me from each season and I think I’ve heard more [right now about] this relief at laughing. Just the actual physical, emotional release that comes from laughter. And I think that’s something that we’re really able to do on the show and I feel lucky to be able to do it for another year.
“Portlandia” airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET on IFC.
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