“It’s Kind of a Joke, but It’s Also Real.”: Why Broad City had to Change to Stay the Same

Broad City, a Comedy Central critical darling, took a deeply serious turn from its usual witty surrealism in the recent season three episode “Burning Bridges.” Best friends Abbi and Ilana have spent the series navigating their twenties in New York and getting into increasingly silly and consequence-free hijinks, but season three has been a slow burning crackdown on some growing problems. Broad City has always been beloved for its goofy optimism, and the show toes a fine line between allowing its characters to be flawed while keeping them infinitely loveable. Ilana, the free-spirited hedonist, makes passionate but ill-informed speeches about patriarchy and accuses Abbi of being racist for not using AAVE slang, but the show calls out her flawed feminism without making feminism itself the joke. Abbi, the awkward but well-meaning artist, bumbles through social situations while keeping the viewers laughing at her remarkably bad luck instead of laughing at her. In a TV landscape where the best comedies often tend to have some kind of dark undercurrent, like clinical depression on You’re the Worst and Bojack Horseman, or inherently evil characters like on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Broad City provides incessant joy and unbreakable friendships.

The episodes leading up to “Burning Bridges,” while still enjoyable and mostly quite good, were starting to feel worn out. Jokes were repeated in less funny situations, and many critics voiced their fears that perhaps Broad City’s days of brilliance were numbered. Something needed to change. But what do you change about a show that is praised for so many defining elements? Abbi and Ilana are two women in the overwhelmingly male stoner-comedy genre, where they are not punished for enjoying consensual promiscuity or eschewing traditional gender norms. They are young and immature without playing into the concept that millennials are born narcissists. The comedy is fantastical without glossing over the kind of poverty two underemployed young New Yorkers would live in. Abbi and Ilana the characters may be terrified of change, but luckily the creators Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer are not, and “Burning Bridges” was not a reinvention so much as an evolution. By confronting its characters with heretofore unseen realistic consequences, “Burning Bridges” made room for development while maintaining its focus on Abbi and Ilana’s friendship and keeping the vital elements viewers love about the show.

“Burning Bridges” broke the status quo in two key areas: Abbi’s budding relationship with Trey, her former boss at the gym, and Ilana’s “not-relationship” with Lincoln, her longtime “not-boyfriend.” In a surprisingly organic move, season three bumped up Trey from comedic relief to serious romantic option while keeping his character intact, and in “Burning Bridges” he convinces Abbi to go on a real date with him instead of continuing their secret casual hookups. Conversely, Lincoln confesses to Ilana that the girl he has been seeing is now his girlfriend, and he wants to be monogamous with her instead of non- monogamous with Ilana. Ilana is heartbroken but unable to recognize the feeling, and her “super chill” facade slowly breaks away during a dinner with her parents. Abbi, after uncharacteristically lying to Ilana about her growing involvement with Trey, dodges between her date and Ilana’s family dinner in an homage to Mrs. Doubtfire (complete with a cameo from Mara Wilson herself) until everything blows up in her face. When Ilana learns the truth and bursts into tears, Abbi tries to comfort her by insisting that Trey is a “guilty pleasure,” but in a rare moment of self-awareness Ilana admits that she is hurting from her break up and overly sensitive to change. Of course, by then Trey has already overheard Abbi’s unkind words about him and walks out on their date, leaving Abbi to join Ilana in her grief.

Showing Abbi and Ilana feeling sad, not frustrated or disappointed, but real sadness is new ground for Broad City; and because Abbi and Ilana go there together, it is a natural progression. Seeing Ilana go from prancing down the sidewalk causing chaos as she realizes her name rhymes with “Madonna” and “Rihanna” to crying into her friend’s shoulder on the sidewalk felt deeply honest for a character who feels and does everything to the extreme. Meanwhile, Abbi’s inability to handle complex social situations went from awkward to cruel when she prioritized her own emotional discomfort over Ilana’s and Trey’s trust, but she ends up letting Trey walk away so she can stay with her crying friend. That choice, to stay with Ilana instead of going with Trey when she had lied to and hurt both of them, brought Abbi into Ilana’s emotional space so they could move through their dejection together. They have both neglected to take their partner’s feelings seriously. They have both stubbornly continued to believe they could keep those relationships from changing. Finally, when all that comes apart, they provide each other with understanding, forgiveness, and support.

The episode took the risks it did without being tonally jarring by maintaining its sense of humor through the pain. In a wonderfully weird final scene, Abbi and Ilana share a joint and a bath as they try to come up with any remaining secrets between them. Ilana once accidentally left her bra in a child’s bedroom while babysitting. Abbi once keyed a guy’s car after he called her a “dirty Jew.” The lightheartedness returns. The next episode, “Getting There,” is light on plot, which feels soothing in the aftermath of “Burning Bridges.” Abbi and Ilana struggle to get themselves to the airport and escape their problems via a free Birthright trip to Israel; another childish choice that will surely result in hilarity during Wednesday’s season finale. But the trip cannot last forever, and the episode acknowledged the fallout from both breakups. Most of all, the girls’ physical departure from New York maintains the closeness that was the glue in “Burning Bridges.” A few nods to previous gags like Ilana storing weed in her vagina and the universe conspiring to sabotage Abbi’s attempts at sophistication feel like reassuring messages that Broad City is not on its way to becoming yet another black comedy.

“Burning Bridges” was a totally unexpected and brilliant move for Broad City to take, because it created momentum for character development without making fundamental changes to those characters or straying from what gives the show its spark. Maybe Trey and Lincoln will never be seen again (unlikely), or maybe they will marry the girls and everyone will move to Connecticut together (even less likely). What will probably happen is Abbi and Ilana will try and fail and try again to fix their mistakes and heal their wounds. If season four goes totally off the rails, it will not be because of “Burning Bridges,” a thoughtful and insightful twenty minutes that almost absolves the season of its less than perfect episodes. Any good TV series needs a core, a center of balance, and Broad City was wise to bring Ilana and Abbi closer together as it pushed its own boundaries. Taking risks does not mean forgetting what already works, and change does not mean losing your identity. Consequences and boyfriends come and go, but for Abbi and Ilana, friendship is forever.

Chelsea_EnnenChelsea Shea Ennen double majored in Theater Studies and English at Wellesley College, and she earned her M.A. in Contemporary Literature, Theory, and Culture at King’s College London.  Her dissertation, “Entertaining the Offered Fallacy,” explored ways to create third wave feminist narratives in pop culture.  She is the fiction editor of the Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal and loves to write everything from personal essays, to media criticism, to fiction.

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