Broad City twists a familiar story into something new, hysterical, and worth the afternoon you'll lose after getting sucked in by watching the opening episode — which features the main characters Skyping each other while one of them is having sex. Season two premieres tonight on Comedy Central, and if you haven't yet discovered this wonderful show, you can catch up on season one on Amazon Prime.
On its surface, Broad City is yet another story about twentysomething girls living in New York City, trying to figure out who they are. It's the story of Girls and The Mindy Project and even much of Inside Amy Schumer in a nutshell, to say nothing of countless web series riffs on the same basic idea. But unlike all of these shows, Broad City manages to create a show that is as thoughtful as it is hilarious. It's a show that takes its characters — all of them — seriously, treating them with warmth and humor. It tackles difficult conversations about women, race, sex, and motivation with an honesty missing from many of its contemporaries.
Here are a few ways Broad City breaks down the female-driven comedy template, in the words of its creators, writers, and stars, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson.
Broad City follows Abbi and Ilana, two best friends living in New York and trying to make sense of their lives. Abbi is an artist who works at soulcycle and dreams of one day teaching a class instead of just "cleaning pubes from the women's shower," and Ilana is an outgoing charismatic friend, who is always asleep at work or trying to leave her job to do something fun like see Lil Wayne.
Since the characters share names with Jacobson and Glazer, you'd be forgiven for believing they're playing themselves. But, really, they're just playing versions of themselves. The characters are based off of younger versions of Jacobson and Glazer, who met at Upright Citizen's Brigade, a comedy troupe known for producing Saturday Night Live sensations like Amy Pohler.
"We consider these characters a scary 15 percent of ourselves that we blow up to the whole 100 percent," Glazer told me last week at New York Comic Con.
Jacobson and Glazer started Broad City as a web series and produced 33 short episodes of what would later become their television show. "Our characters are much younger than us. They are us before we started doing the web series, " Jacobson said. "It's us even younger than we play on the show."
Creating characters based off of personal experiences can be difficult. But when it pays off — as it does here — it can feel painfully, amazingly honest and all the funnier for being so.
"Abbi and Ilana today, we would never do these things that our characters do," Jacobson said. "But the choices we make for them, we have to remember, 'Well, I didn't know then that that was a completely irresponsible thing to do, or that is completely inappropriate.' Those are the funnest things to play and to write about."
Obliterating gender stereotypes
Female-driven comedies have garnered praise for placing women front and center in the narrative, as opposed to the endless onslaught of comedies about dudes. But that doesn't always mean the characters on the show are well-rounded humans.
Broad City immediately stakes its claim for an original point-of-view 10 minutes into that first episode, in the moment when you realize what's really going on during Ilana and Abbi's Skype call. Immediately afterward, Ilana's boyfriend, Lincoln, asks her to define their relationship, and she balks. Is the scene absurd? Absolutely. But it gives Ilana's character a freedom — both sexually and emotionally — rarely seen on television.
"We construct our female characters the same way we create our male characters, so it starts there," Glazer told me. "Men are minimized in representation in media also. Minimized. They are made to look like assholes, and they look like dummies. And that's not fair either. We live in New York and we know some really smart, incredible, nice men and they deserve to be portrayed on TV too"
Everyone on Broad City is, at times, a dummy, but that's part of what makes the show so funny and believable. Every character makes bad decisions, but every character makes good ones too. Regardless of their gender, the characters on Broad City are given screen time and emotional depth, something that can't be said for many TV shows.
"I think men and women in TV and film really only get one side of things, but it's really much more captivating to see both sides," Glazer said. "Just like these girls: you're seeing two sides of women in their 20s, isn't that more interesting? Everyone can relate to sadness and happiness."
Abbi and Ilana are likable characters, but they aren't perfect. They lie to each other. They make mistakes. They are messy in a way that doesn't feel constructed or over-the-top. Instead, their messiness is small.
But, then, that's appropriate. Humanity, after all, is messy, a group of people all trying to figure out how to live and which responses are appropriate.
When asked how they write such messy, unmotivated characters when they are both obviously motivated, successful people, Glazer lamented how utterly messy they still feel sometimes. "It feels fucking insane sometimes, and we feel like the characters in the show," Glazer told me. "Why are we not doing this elegantly? Why are we not better at this already?"
That fear of failure and defeat is evident in Broad City, but it's not necessarily said out loud. In one episode, Abbi skips work to sign for a package for her neighbor, whom she loves, but when she talks to her mom on the phone later she tells her that she spent the day working on her art.
Abbi cares deeply about her art, and she wants to use her gifts to win her mother's approval. She lies to her mom for the same reasons we all lie to our moms, because we want to show them our best selves. It's those tiny moments that feel crushing because they feel so real.
"To be able to expose or write about floundering and messiness, you have to have gone through it," Jacobson told me. "We're definitely floundering and messy, and there are moments where I'm just like, 'That was inappropriate what I just did right there.'"
Because Abbi and Ilana are versions of their creators, they can be bolder than they might be in reality. But they also a provide an outlet for the real life Abbi and Ilana to deal with all of life's inherent messiness.
"I think Abbi and Ilana on the show allow us as businesswomen and writers and creators to make mistakes more and think they're funny instead of just flog ourselves in our brains. I'm grateful to the character for that," Glazer said.
Ultimately, Broad City is masterful because it shows how capable and qualified Glazer and Jacobson are, no matter how their on-screen personas may appear. They may play messy television show characters, but the show's confident point-of-view neatly displays just how good the women behind it are at what they do.
Glazer and Jacobson understand what it is to deal with their own messiness. And that makes their characters' struggles believable — and understandable to the audience, which will surely see something worth recognizing in these two lost twentysomethings, who, nonetheless, want to build something just a little bit better for themselves.
Broad City is streaming on Amazon Prime. The second season returns to Comedy Central on January 14.