[This is a review of the Broad City series premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
HBO’s Girls seemingly operates on the same plain as Comedy Central’s Broad City, but while their surface similarities make comparisons inevitable, the two are as far apart as Girls is from the show it was most easily compared to upon the occasion of its debut – Sex and the City. Despite that distance, however, all three of these shows feel connected.
From the glamour of Sex and the City to the hipster wasteland and its naval-gazing inhabitants on Girls to the type of freewheeling storytelling that initially defines Broad City – these shows do have a common thread: they are each about surviving New York, a city often portrayed as some kind of magnetized burg that attracts the crushable metal that dreamers are made out of.
Doubtlessly, that task has grown harder now – both in fiction and in real life. Sex and the City feels like a fairy-tale upon reflection, with unbelievable parties, glossy fashion, and designer shoe addiction – surely this is reality for some, but it’s not a reachable crest for most. That was the late nineties and the early aughts, though. A different time that was still hungover from an economic boom period. One wonders if Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte would connect with modern viewers if that show was just starting out now.
To be fair, though, it’s not like that largess wasn’t earned. Each of those characters were accomplished and powerful in their own right. It’s not like it was Friends or one of its many clones, where waitresses and non-working actors ruled the city while looking out upon their implausible fiefdom from their floor-to-ceiling windows that looked into impossibly large apartments.
Girls is, in every way, the anti-Friends. Whereas the latter was funny and frivolous, the former often sacrifices humor for introspection. These characters wear their desires, their victories, and their defeats. They are raw. Do we ever really see Joey or Phoebe or Rachel stress about money? Do we feel the ache of their failures, or is it all just Central Perk and fountain dancing?
On Girls, Hannah wants to be someone. She wants her voice to matter – the characters on Friends just wanted to find love and fun. Those episodes all built to nothing and that was, and is, fine. Every show can’t be art, every moment can’t mean something. Sometimes we all need a little distraction, not an unkind mirror.
If Girls is the anti-Friends, then Broad City is the anti-Girls, because it seemingly aspires to be the middle ground. Abbi and Ilanna (show creators Abbi Jacobson and Ilanna Glazer) have next to nothing. There is no glamour, New York is just a place they live, not something that they have to live up to, and they don’t seem as if they want to conquer the world. They’re just regular people, struggling. You can’t even describe them as hipsters because there doesn’t seem to be any pre-meditation to their look or tastes.
In classic TV comedy fashion, Abbi an Illanna are also an odd couple (Illanna is clearly the more wild of the two, always talking her calmer friend, Abbi, into their misadventures at the expense of sanity). The DNA of Laverne and Shirley is alive in this series, but like that show, and Friends (and countless other series’) the stories seem to be funny and frivolous. There is no effort to make a statement.
There is also a slight embrace of the surreal that makes Broad City feel – at times – like a less disciplined or driven version of Louie. Specifically this is seen in the pilot when Abbi and Ilanna are bucket-drum panhandling, only to see their flash-business model come crashing down when an opportunistic break dancer decides to horn in on their territory. The same can be said for the scene where Abbi and Illanna clean an apartment in their underwear to get money from a creepy deviant (as played by Fred Armisen, who joins indie-comic stars Chris Gethard and Hannibal Buress as notable guest stars) so that they can go to a Lil’ Wayne rap concert and avoid a crushing night of stir-fry cuisine.
On Girls, such a horrific event might have (rightly) scarred one of the characters or served as ammunition for a blog post. We’d all be inundated by think-pieces about what Lena Dunham was saying about self-worth when she put one of her characters in a situation where they were willing to go through that kind of indecency for a material thing – but that just isn’t going to happen here. With Broad City, the half-naked maid service joins work and semi-romantic frustrations, furry slacker pseudo-roomate troubles, borderline shop-lifting, pot dealer barter-trading, and sidewalk drinking on the list of things dealt with during a normal NYC day.
Is it possible that that kind of comedy may come off as too detached from reality, too broad, or too exclusive and standoffish? Is it possible that people might be put off by the show’s indifference to whether you “like” these characters? Possibly, but it’s important to realize that this also feels like the evolution of the kind of un-apologetically cruel and unlikable characters and antic-based-humor that propelled a show like Seinfeld. That show revolutionized the exploration of nothingness in a way that half-inspired the Friends generation of sitcoms that comics like Abbi Jacobson and Ilanna Glazer probably grew up watching (in addition to Seinfeld).
All of these inspirations and similarities don’t mean that Broad City comes off as a work of lazy pastiche, though. It’s true, there are parts of Broad City that feel spiritually linked to shows from the past, but the show’s tone is also confident in a way that is singular and doubtlessly forged by the struggle to come up through the overcrowded Web (Broad City was initially a web series) and bolstered by the approval of someone like Amy Poehler (a producer on the show).
Unlike many other series’ that get to the point of being on a major network, though, Broad City also feels daring and immune to the plague of careerism. You get the sense that Jacobson and Glazer are leaving everything on the screen for you, that they are unafraid to push boundaries (a challenge that stifles something like Two Broke Girls) and that they aren’t looking to use this as a stepping stone. This is them and this is their idea of what funny is. Enjoy it… or don’t, but respect it as more than just “Comedy Central’s version of Girls“.
Broad City airs on Wednesday nights on Comedy Central @10:30PM ET