It’s difficult not to make comparisons between Broad City and Girls. But while both comedies follow the lives of female 20-somethings in New York, they are miles apart in tone, style, and humor.
Girls is darker; it’s edges sharper. Still, for all thinkpieces the series is guilty of inspiring, it isn’t doing anything that revolutionary. Critical reactions have less to do with what Lena Dunham is saying than how she is saying it. Nonetheless, Girls is a good show, and Dunham a genuine talent.
Broad City — which just returned for a second season on Comedy Central — is lighter fair, to be sure, but it’s far from slight. At its heart, is the relationship between besties Abbi and Ilana, comedians Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer playing exaggerated versions of themselves.
The bond between these two women is the show’s greatest strength. The warmth of the Abbi/Ilana friendship stands in glaring contrast to the toxic relationships present on Girls. Where the latter is predicated on petty selfishness, the former is built around kindness and genuine love. Abbi and Ilana are loyal and supportive friends. On the show, the fondness is played with sincerity. It feels real.
That realness extends to the conflicts and struggles the women of Broad City encounter throughout the series. Far from the privileged world inhabited by the characters on Girls, Abbi and Ilana are relatively broke. Much of the show consists of them hustling and scheming, like, say, answering a Craigslist ad to do housecleaning in their underwear so they can pay for Lil’ Wayne tickets, or conning a couple gullible college kids out of their air-conditioner. There may still be a tinge of privilege around the show’s edges, but these girls are on the scrappier end of the Millennial spectrum.
The show has deliberate looseness that seems to be a result of its web series roots. It’s not sloppy, but it does have an effortless vibe that matches the carefree attitude of its two leads. Episodes are mostly standalone. There is no heavy plotting of deep continuity making it easy to drop in and out on the series without feeling lost.
That looseness extends to what executive producer Amy Poehler calls the series’ “street-level feel,” reflected in its numerous exterior settings, that brings city of New York front and center. But rather than serve as a love letter, Broad City presents the city as an antagonist.
While Abbi and Ilana’s relationship to New York is far from adversarial, the show does a great job highlighting the many indignities city dwellers must suffer on a daily basis. A random subway ride plays out like tableau of human depravity. A trip to retrieve a package from a shipping facility turns into a something out of a David Lynch film.
Through these scenes, the show plays with the surreal while managing to keep its feet on the ground. It’s a delicate balance reminiscent of early seasons of The Simpsons when that show’s “rubber band reality” dictum was still observed.
With two female leads, Broad City naturally invites a feminist close reading. Critics have praised the series for its “sneak-attack feminism.” Jacobson and Glazer seem ambivalent about the show’s politics.
“The characters definitely have vaginas, but that’s not what we’re thinking about when we’re writing,” Glazer said in a 2014 interview.
If the series is making a statement, it seems almost incidental — a consequence of Jacobson and Glazer’s comic sensibilities and worldview rather than a conscious choice. Take, for example, Ilana’s nonchalant observation in a season one episode that, “Statistically, we’re headed toward an age where everybody’s going to be, like, caramel and queer.”
It’s a pronouncement of the darkest fears of conservatives and insecure white men alike tossed off as a throwaway line. Where a show like Girls, which, at times, feels like it’s trying too hard, would give this line room to land with a thud, Broad City glides past it on its way to the next joke.
The show is similarly breezy in its treatment of recreational drug use. Alcohol, cocaine, and especially marijuana are present, but never distracting. As Glazer explains, “It’s kind of like the sex politics; it’s incidental. It’s based on reality, not so much a choice. We don’t say, ‘Let’s write an episode about this drug,’ but if it ushers the story in the right way then it helps.”
But for all this talk of looseness, Broad City is a professional, confident, and tight production. It benefits from a bright color palette that capitalizes on numerous exterior shots. This is a kinetic show that doesn’t want to be contained in an apartment, coffee shop, or office. All of New York is the set, and the camera follows Abbi and Ilana as they traverse the city.
The supporting cast is comprised of a handful of guys, who occupy relatively minor roles compared to Abbi and Ilana. John Gemberling gets laughs as the schlubby, video game-playing Bevers, Abbi’s unseen roommate’s boyfriend who never leaves the apartment.
Comedian Chris Gethard also shows up occasionally as Ilana’s milquetoast boss at a Groupon-type startup, who demonstrates tremendous patience for her absent work ethic and loose interpretation of proper workplace attire.
It’s the excellent standup comic Hannibal Buress, however, who is the show’s secret weapon. As Ilana’s dentist friend with benefits Lincoln, Buress’ cool, professional demeanor is a major contrast to Ilana’s freewheeling lifestyle. His smooth, deadpan line readings are some of the show’s best moments, slyly injecting humor into otherwise mundane dialogue.
For all its stoner humor and crude sex jokes, Broad City is turning out some of the most inventive, entertaining, and immediate comedy currently on TV. While it may, indeed, have something to say, the series eschews self-important declarations, preferring to tell funny stories above all else. The results speak for themselves.
Broad City airs Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. on Comedy Central.