A Whole New Gowanus

No television program currently on the air has likely suffered more invidious discrimination than Comedy Central’s Broad City.

Now in the early goings of its second season, the show follows the hapless misadventures of two directionless New York twenty-something women (Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, playing not even slightly veiled versions of themselves) who stumble, fuck, and blaze their way through not-so-standard comedic situations.  It’s similar to, but wonderfully distinct from, a lot of other shows about similar lovable urban losers merely by dint of the fact that its stars, writers, and creators are women; most of its peers either marginalize female characters to thankless girlfriend roles or ignore them altogether.  In Broad City, however, the friendship between Abbi and Ilana — which often verges into stalker territory, on Ilana’s part, anyway — is always and forever at the forefront, with male characters allowed to exist on the periphery (and, on occasion, to steal the occasional scene through the person of Ilana’s dentist/fuck buddy Lincoln, played with charm by comedian Hannibal Burress), but never to dominate the proceedings.

Broad City is a terrific show, consistently hilarious, led by two women with supreme comic gifts to be so young.  There is much to recommend it, and just as much that sets it apart from more typical, and less daring, dudebro comedy fare:  its extremely successful use of New York as a setting, character, and comedic element; its scarily precise evocation of weed culture, a whole new take on stoner comedy for a generation to whom pot has become normalized; its ability to somehow send a message of female empowerment despite the fact that its main characters are ineffectual clowns.  The show’s greatest selling point is undoubtedly the performances of Jacobson and Glazer; it’s no coincidence that Broad City is produced by Amy Poehler, with whom its creators share a similar we-don’t-give-a-fuck-if-you-like-it-or-not attitude.  Their total fearlessness — to appear ridiculous, unattractive, unsympathetic, anything for a laugh — is what sells some of the show’s, well, broadest jokes; their lack of defensivness and willingness to go for the throat is rare enough amongst male comics and even more rare with women, who are often forced by a still-sexist comedy culture to choose between getting laughs and being ‘likable’ or ‘pretty’.  But they’re also far more than simply a good pull to decorate Poehler’s résumé; they have an approach all their own and have earned the right to be judged on their own considerable merits.

Having said all that, the show certainly doesn’t need my help to sell itself.  While its ratings aren’t spectacular, it’s made a good transition from web series to legit cable show, and has bought itself plenty of goodwill from critics, many of whom were already over the moon for its strong first season and have been just as pleased that it’s so far avoided the sophomore slump.  Whether or not Broad City becomes a phenomenon, it’s at least launched the careers of two solid performers who have a great future ahead of them.  What’s particularly odd about the show is that it can’t seem to escape being constantly compared to and contrasted with a completely different show called Girls.

There’s hardly been an article written, a blog posted (including this one, thanks for the update on my own use of irony), or a take heated in the last year that doesn’t find it necessary to explain the author’s attitude about the difference between Girls and Broad City.  Go ahead and look up a dozen reviews of the Comedy Central series; odds on that at least ten of them will in some way evoke Lena Dunham’s HBO creation.  Whether the piece favors one show or another, or finds them representative or not of a particular ‘voice’ or viewpoint, or thinks they show two sides of the same coin or the same side of two different coins, it would appear that Girls and Broad City are cultural conjoined twins, with one impossible to mention without reference to the other.

And this is strange, because, really, the shows aren’t all that similar.  In tone, in spirit, in direction and approach, in intent and in delivery, they’re almost complete opposites; while both feature the stuttering efforts of young women in New York to cope with life, they are as different as M*A*S*H and Hogan’s Heroes, and their focus on hip urban females no more make them of a piece than are those two shows comparable because they both were sitcoms that took place during a war.  In some ways, Broad City may get the better end of this devil’s bargain, because although they come from similar backgrounds, neither Glazer nor Jacobson seem to trigger the kind of hate-boners amongst cultural conservatives Lena Dunham does.  But the way critics and commenters yoke them together like a horse and carriage gives cause to wonder if there isn’t more than a little retrograde sexism at work here.

When a sitcom or TV series is dominated by male characters — when it is, in other words, ‘normal’ — it doesn’t get constantly name-checked in the same way as Girls and Broad City unless the comparison is prominent enough to justify charges of legitimate plagiarism.  Community and The Big Bang Theory, for example, are both male-led sitcoms that deal with certain similar aspects of nerd culture; but they do it in such self-evidently different ways that it is perfectly possible to talk about one without ever mentioning the other.  With the female-led shows, however, their lack of similarity — Hannah Horvath may be mistaken in thinking she’s the voice of a generation, but she believes it, an idea that Ilana Wexler would laugh at — is not as important as the fact that they’re both about young women in New York and thus must always and forever be bound together.

Both shows have virtues aplenty, and both will live and die on their own merits.  But the way they are so often presented as a package deal reminds us that, for a lot of people — including many who should know better — a show about two urban men can be a lot if things (a drama, a workplace comedy, an action-adventure show, a history, a prediction), but a show about two women is always first and foremost about two women.  It’s a limitation that says almost nothing about Broad City, but an unexpected lot about the people who write about television.

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