"Broad City," Season 3

By Sarah Mesle, Phillip MaciakFebruary 18, 2016

"Broad City," Season 3
DEARTVLOGODear Television,

SARAH: Phil, our friends are back! Don’t you feel like that? Like there were these crazy and smart college friends that you loved, Abbi and Ilana, and you haven’t seen them in ages, and then, surprise, here they are! Phil, it is such a crazy pleasure to see them again. And yet — how shall I say this? — sometimes when you see crazy smart old friends there’s a little bit of disconcerting adjustment. Watching last night’s opener I was loving the crazy, and also felt like I was saying to myself: hmm, where’s the smart? I’m sure it must be here somewhere!

Another way of saying this, Phil, is that watching our Broads, I felt a lot of enthusiasm and also some disenchantment. Maybe that was just me.

PHIL: It’s not just you. I loved this episode. These two are such specific, weird, and wonderfully precise physical comedians, and this episode was a real showcase. Slapstick is a big part of this show, but millennial self-parody has always been a part of the show too. I never tire of seeing Abbi and Ilana dance/fall-down, but having Ilana rant about Saudi women while bemoaning the loss of bottomless mimosas at the top felt familiar. So I hear what you’re saying about the show’s intelligence, but, counterintuitively, I think the smartest bits are often the dumbest ones. In other words, I think the show is often least satisfying when it’s reaching to say something and most satisfying when it just lets us spin around in its chaotic, Richard Scarry vision of contemporary New York.
Broad city richard scary
SARAH: Last year, you and I and the rest of Dear TV wrote about Broad City, and I never felt at a loss for something to say. The humor always felt raunchy, but also rigorous: smart, editorial, deeply layered. Broad City always felt like a text, like something excited to be closely read. And this time — I don’t know. Yes, it’s awesome that women are making bathroom jokes; yes, we love their boundary redefining friendship. Totally on board. But I wasn’t sure there was anything new they were saying about either of those things.

PHIL: Layered is the right word, I think. And I think the parts in this episode that worked best were the ones that really exploited those layers. The opening sequence, the search for a bathroom as Descent into Hell. Even at its most uneven, there’s always a lot to notice on Broad City.

SARAH: Let’s consider the opening sequence, which was probably my favorite part of the episode and — let me tell you — really rewards repeat viewing. It’s a montage journey through Abbi and Ilana’s year since we’ve last seen them: images of them celebrating New Year’s Eve, enduring frozen winter nights, getting ready for parties, smoking up, going on dates; they read Hillary Clinton’s memoir, they argue about whether the dress is white or blue. But in a classic Broad City move, we’re shown this “year in a glance” in split screen, giving us glimpses into… Abbi and Ilana’s bathrooms.  

Broad City Toilet
And obviously it’s totally genius: never was there more a site of self-making and unmaking than the Broad City shitter. Not to get all literary here, but there’s a great history of textual bathrooms (Streetcar Named Desire, Jasmine), of the dirty places you go to get clean, and bathrooms work even better for Abbi and Ilana because these characters are so completely willing to mix output (shit, pee, vomit, dead goldfish) with input (smoke, food, dick). In perhaps my favorite moment from the sequence, Abbi joyfully kisses a (presumably negative) pregnancy test, before realizing that even though the negative test is the blissful sign that she will not be “outputing” a baby, it is nevertheless a site of her pee, which she has just, through kissing, more or less taken in.

So I mean: that is clearly great, even though I do think we should really be careful about what makes these characters able to dabble so blissfully in their own abjection (this is the part where I point everyone towards Kyla Wazana Tompkins and Rebecca Wanzo’s incredible discussion Brown Broads, White TV: go read that and then come back). But I’m not sure what the rest of the episode did for me. Chainz? Art?

PHIL: One of the reasons I feel vaguely uncomfortable imagining that I’m friends with these women is that Broad City is so very much a show about millennials. I know that it invites viewer friendship — the same way that its wealthy aunt Sex and the City did — but sometimes accepting that invitation feels like generational tourism. It walks a strange line between celebration and self-parody that always makes me worry that I’m accessing the show the wrong way, that I’m invested because of the kind of grumpy release-valve it gives me rather than through true friendship.

But regardless of whether or not it’s creepy that we’re here, this sequence is such a great example of the way the show, at its best, doesn’t belittle or lionize this generation so much as produce a revealing grotesque of it. The split screen — which they use a lot — does so much work. If you know anything about Broad City, you know that it’s about female friendship. But, it’s a sticky, dirty depiction. From their pepper-sprayed eyes in the first season to the bloodied boobs that end this episode, this is a friendship rooted in unpleasant, yet cathartic, contact.

So, this is a show about friendship and closeness, but much of it happens at a distance. Abbi and Ilana are so often apart, for all that we think of them as inseparably together. The split screen jokes that mirror their independent lives, that show them doing the same things in tandem, that show them somehow sharing pizza and chocolates, that show them on the phone — this is maybe the best Skype show of all time — these all add up to a kind of massive, choreographed eye-roll about the idea that Facebook Is Making Us Lonely, Google Is Making Us Stupid, Snapchat Is Making Us Smelly, Social Media, in general, is Tearing Us Apart. Not Abbi and Ilana! When this show is moving — and it’s sometimes moving — it’s moving because of the depth, or layering, of this friendship that might otherwise appear to be shallow.

This show isn’t curated, it’s accumulated, which made the jabs about art-world pretension in this episode seem not only tired but out of place.

SARAH: Yeah, I guess the whole chainz and art left me more or less cold (do we need to be making fun of young urban millennials and their testical art? I mean, maybe, but not necessarily?). But I did — only after a second viewing, let me be honest — love the way the show circled back to the input-output shenanigans of the opening sequence. Ilana, having spent the whole episode with her cartoonishly-large bike chain locked around her waist, sits on her bed braced for Abbi to force her free from her chains. For Ilana, this experience — involving, as it does, lube, thrusting, positioning, and trying to fit something large (Ilana) through something small (the circle of Ilana’s chain) — feels, as she says, “sexual.” And it is, of course! (The fact that Abbi’s dressed like she’s about to clean the house doesn’t change that: nothing turns Abbi on like the chance to beyond some bed and bath.)

What’s most wonderful about the scene is how it collapses the typical binaries that organize sex. There’s a hole and a phallus, and a lot of sexual resonances, but there’s not a clear assignment of agency around those objects; Ilana’s body seems like both the phallus and the thing that’s getting fucked. And even more impressively: is Ilana getting off by going in our coming out? In a complete collapse of the input-output tensions of the beginning, the scene seems like simultaneous intercourse and birth; Ilana has fucked herself with her own hole and given birth to her own body. “It’s coming, it’s coming!” shouts Abbi, as she pulls the chain free and Ilana screams. That is some jouissance right there, Phil! I was like: check it, Ilana is crowning.

So maybe I’ve talked myself into liking this episode, afterall?

PHIL: I have no way of following that, Sarah, except to briefly return to Hillary Rodham Clinton. Why is Ilana saluting Living History on the toilet? If these are millennial women, shouldn’t they be Feeling the Bern? Haven’t I read 30 posts in the past two weeks pondering why the female, twentysomething precariat is denying Hillary? Maybe this is another one of those moments when the show wants us to see Ilana missing the point, or maybe it’s not. (There are rumors that the former senator from New York will be making an appearance on the show this season.) For some reason, it feels like that book fits in this episode, which we’re reacting to with (in your words) equal parts enthusiasm and disenchantment. We are proud of and disappointed in Ilana Wexler, and she will rise from the ashes of 2016’s Hillary Clinton.broad city HillarySARAH: Oh man. Phil, that is super intense. I’m not sure I’m prepared to talk about Bernie, Hillary, our global future, and our newly-found shared responsibility to PROTECT SCOTUS AT WHATEVER THE COST. So can I instead mention something that is, I think… lighter?

I want to make sure to mention that pissing millennials (pissing on streets, pissing on themselves, pissing on POSSIBLY OUR FUTURE, OH GOD, PHIL!) are not the only connection between this season opener and last season’s conclusion. The other connection is: magic! I mean that literally. Last season ended with an emphasis on the tree man and the variously not-quite supernatural mysteries of St Mark’s Place. And this year the plot spun out from a mysterious encounter with an unseen but “real” gutter monster who eats Ilana’s bike key. What should we make of that gutter monster? He’s in the bathroom of New York, he’s the intersection of realism and fantasy, he’s the unseen benevolent danger driving this roller coaster. Phil! what should we make of this rough beast, slouching towards Broad City to be born?

You’re bleeding, dude,

Sarah and Phil



LARB Contributors

Sarah Mesle (PhD, Northwestern) is faculty at USC and Senior Humanities Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Prior to arriving at USC, she held postdoctoral fellowships in English at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Los Angeles. She is a 19th-century Americanist by training and is interested, generally speaking, in the long history of the American popular novel and in the many ways pop culture can excite, estrange, and surprise.


With Sarah Blackwood, she is co-editor of Avidly.org. You can follow her on Twitter.

Phillip Maciak (@pjmaciak) is the TV editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His essays have appeared in SlateThe New Republic, and other venues, and he's co-founder of the Dear Television column. He's the author of The Disappearing Christ: Secularism in the Silent Era (Columbia University Press, 2019) and Avidly Reads Screen Time (New York University Press, 2023). He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.


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