Now in its fourth season, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson's comedy is bolder than ever
Broad City, sailing confidently through its fourth season, started life on YouTube in 2010. The web series, created by Upright Citizens Brigade alumni Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, was about the lives of two Jewish stoner girls in their 20s trying to get by in New York. It quickly garnered a committed but lowkey fanbase for its low-budget, grimy, relatable comedy, most of which centred on the girls having sex, smoking weed, hanging out, and trying to scrape together enough money to do all of the above.
One of its early fans was Amy Poehler, who mentored the women and executive produced the show when it came to Comedy Central in early 2014. From the outset it struggled to escape comparisons to Girls, despite the only real similarity being that both shows are about women in their 20s in New York; a comparison that Glazer has rightfully called “reductive”.
The Girls comparisons are for the most part unfounded; while both do deal with women living their lives post-college, they are tonally, visually and narratively from completely separate worlds. Broad City, while it does indeed star women, has never strived for realism. It is more accurately placed alongside Community or Seinfeld or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and its sitcom framework means that nothing ever has to matter outside those 22 minutes; the characters are mostly exempt from the consequences of their selfish mistakes come the next episode.
They never have to grow or move on – progress ultimately hinders potential antics, and any illusion of progress is just another opportunity for the girls to fuck up. In season four they appear to be changing, ever so slightly; the girls get new jobs and men, but only because the old ones have been rinsed of situations and jokes. Every decision serves the comedy.
Broad City might have been picked up for its subtle, semi-lifelike stoner comedy, but it’s developed into something else entirely. It still exists very much in our world and in our culture; the women talk openly and explicitly about race, class, masturbation, gender, and sex.
From the first series, Ilana discusses her mental health openly. When an ex-colleague says she has mental health issues, she retorts “we all do”. In the latest series she deals with her SAD in a series of tragic yet hilarious escalating scenes. Where in Girls Hannah freaked out upon discovering she had HPV, in Broad City, Ilana says she’d be embarrassed if she didn’t. The women love to wank, they peg, they have bad sex. Ilana’s bisexuality is self-evident from the start; never labelled, but explicitly and realistically depicted, normalising it in a way that other shows have never quite managed.
It also very much lives in our world culturally. Ilana, who is 23 when the show begins, pinpoints precise, semi-niche cultural moments from the audience’s own upbringing and relationship with the internet; in ‘Game Over’, she references Salad Fingers, Mr Hands, eBaum’s World. When in our world “cultural appropriation” became more and more of a conversation, in Broad City, Ilana gets called out for her gold “Latina” earrings (but not for her tendency to yell “YAS KWEEN”).
Trump and Hillary leak into the narrative; the latter even makes an appearance. It takes sitcom tropes and signposts from our world to root it in reality, moving with the times as we do, while from the very first episode dipping into a more surreal, outlandish, colourful kind of comedy. Its genius lies in where that relatability and surrealism collide, and the serious bits only become more affecting when wrapped in something so outwardly ridiculous.
With an ever-increasing budget and fanbase, Broad City has continued to push and play with boundaries and conventions. Lately, its forays into concept episodes have set it apart from its perceived contemporaries. This season has seen a Sliding Doors-esque episode (called ‘Sliding Doors’) that shows us where the women would be without one another, while a clever, mostly-animated episode in which the girls trip on shrooms is reminiscent of Community and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s stop-motion Christmas episodes. Like Community, only perhaps not as overtly or consistently so, the show often plays on tropes and clichés while relying on suspension of disbelief.
A lot of Broad City’s boldest experiments with surrealism and darkness occur in sort of liminal spaces; in what feels like a gap between our world and something more sinister. In ‘Knockoffs’ (season 2), Ilana and her mom go literally underground in the search of fake bags, blindfolded and shoved into a van. In ‘Apartment Hunters’, a hilariously hellish episode, Ilana calls up an ex-roommate and lover in the search for a TV remote. At the end of the episode we see his lair; decorated with photos of Ilana, the centrepiece is a Christmas tree decorated with Ilana’s underwear and topped with the missing remote. In the first episode of season three, Abbi drops her key down a drain and an unseen creature growls a compliment from the depths. It’s as if the weirdness is coming from these underground spaces – a sinister world that’s seeping into one not unlike our own.
A great deal of the time, these liminal spaces are “official” places; places where the scatty, disorganised girls have to adhere to the rules of the real world and deal with offices, the DMV, estate agents. In ‘Working Girls’ in season one, Abbi has to pick up a package for a neighbour. After traversing the city, she ends up on an island where she finds a monstrous old woman named Garol alone in the middle of an empty building eating yogurt alone and yelling. In ‘Co-Op’ (season three), after breaking the rules, Abbi and Ilana end up in a bleak back room where a woman with a baby in a sling screams that they are “garbage people”.
In ‘Apartment Hunters’, an estate agent tells them that she makes “dolls out of human hair” and tries to force the girls to rent a bloodied flat so she doesn’t get her legs broken.Through their eyes, the DMV is where people go to die; the place where Ilana returns her cable remote is empty and bleak; the bank, the tax office, and other adult spaces all become otherworldly and provide opportunities to warp and emphasise the horror of growing up.
Broad City could so easily have relied on its immediacy and on being relatable to flailing women in their 20s. It would still have been wildly popular, but instead, it has become one of the most brave and experimental shows of recent years. Over four seasons and a web series, Broad City has consistently employed and subverted conventions of sitcoms and comedy, trying out new things that may or may not please old fans and new audiences at once. That is entirely down to Glazer and Jacobson; Broad City will end, but together or separately, they are talented and experienced writers, connoisseurs, and fans of comedy.
Glazer and Jacobson have managed to carve out a bold, fresh space in comedy with a show that carries some of the hallmarks of those that have come before, but is entirely its own. Through realistic explorations of real-world issues combined with bold surrealism and self-awareness, Broad City has far surpassed being “a stoner comedy, but with girls”. Long may the kweens reign.