In the first episode of IFC's Portlandia, the critically-acclaimed comedy starring Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, we learn that the dream of the '90s is still alive in Portland, Oregon, "the Greenest City in America" known for its microbreweries, fine coffees, and organic produce. And, as we find out in the various characters Armisen and Brownstein play in this sketch comedy, there are plenty of righteous do-gooders here in Yuppie-ville, USA. The show makes fun of obnoxious yuppies and hipsters, yes, but what makes it so hilarious is that the people Portlandia is ridiculing really do exist. They're types we all know captured perfectly by the show: the person with a bazillion mobile and electronic devices (all from the Apple store, of course); the person who references in conversation the many culturally elite publications he reads, like the New Yorker, the New York Times, Mother Jones, etc; the person who pays one dollar more for that organic orange, and tells you about it; the person who dons his canvas grocery bag to the Trader Joe's.
The people that Portlandia is satirizing are all better than the rest of us, or at least they think they are (you can watch some choice clips here). As a personal anecdote, one time several years ago, I was at the beach with my younger brother, who was then a toddler. He had found some sand dollars in the water so we were putting them out to dry. But a young yuppie who saw us came over and said disapprovingly, "You know, those are living beings."
And there's plenty of moral opprobrium in the show. One of Portlandia's stock characters is a manic bike rider (Armisen) who dons a whistle, yelling at people and cars to get out of his way, cheering "Go Vegan!" from time to time, and bragging "I don't have a driver's license"---all from the throne of his bicycle seat.
In another clip, this one from the first episode of season one, a young couple goes to a restaurant and asks the waitress if the chicken on the menu is from a local farm. When the waitress presents the chicken's "papers," the couple decides to go to the farm to ensure that it is a humanely run institution. As it turns out, the chickens are as happy as they would be in a Disney movie. But the farm's owner is a creep who is running some sort of cult full of young blond girls. At one point, they all--including Armisen and Brownstein--get on their knees and pray together at the farm.
So this is the dream of the 90s. A critic at the Huffington Post describes it as "our niche-ification and our lack of perspective about the trivial things that we so often latch on to." But it's more than that. There's a distinctively moral element to this nichification. The characters of Portlandia---who are cut-and-pasted from the real world of young adults, like that woman at the beach---are inordinately interested in the markers of living "ethically" in the new politically correct way. This lifestyle possesses them like a religion, complete with its trinkets, icons, and all.
That reminds me of one of my favorite clips, which is about a man who is about to check out at a Whole Foods-type grocery store. In this type of grocery store, which only sells local and organic food and includes a whole array of super-vegan products, the customers usually bring their own enviro-friendly grocery bags because, you know, it's one small step to help save Mother Earth. Well this man forgot his own bag, so he asks the teller at the cash register (Armisen) to put his items in a plastic bag, a Portlandia faux-pas if there ever was one.
Armisen is dumbfounded so calls his supervisor (Brownstein) to the scene. The bagless man guiltily explains, "I forgot my grocery bag." The supervisor is unrelenting and icily explains: "It doesn't matter what you're doing. When I wake up in the morning, my eyes don't forget to open; my heart doesn't forget to beat." In other words, the grocery bag is part of who you are. And if it's not, there's something morally and existentially wrong with you. After a standoff, the man eventually leaves carrying his many groceries---watermelon and all---in his hands.
These external markers are not just accessories that you own, they are part of your very self. In another scene that illustrates this point, Brownstein is about to get into her car, but she drops her phone. It's not just any phone, It's her treasured iPhone. As it's falling, soon to hit the pavement, her cherished memories with her phone flash across the screen---the time she first bought it, the time it helped her locate the perfect brunch spot, the time she kissed it good night, the time she texted from her lap at a dinner out with friends. When it finally smashes on the pavement, the viewer sees an image of the girl smashing at the same time. She's nothing without her phone.
The iPhone, the grocery bag, the bike---these are all ways of literally wearing the new religion of moral hedonism on your sleeve. It's all very superficial, of course. A patina of ethics masking behaviors that are all about you and how you feel. But don't tell the characters of Portlandia that. They have created an entire world built around them themselves and their accoutrements---a world that we can laugh at, but that we are all, in many ways, part of too.