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Don’t get me wrong; I’ve seen every episode of Broad City. I watched the web series with the girls on my college improv team, and I caught the live tour when it came to Boston. I follow Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson on Instagram, and I listen to Hannibal Buress’ stand-up. In my opinion, the show has only gotten stronger in season two. I like seeing more of Bevers without the show attempting to humanize him, and I think the casual exploration of Ilana’s sexuality is a breath of fresh air.
I just wish Ilana and Abbi were a little more “together.” Watching them make people uncomfortable, fall short of their goals and pursue a new party every night is kind of a drag.
The weird part is, real-life Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer are badass, capable ladies and self-described “writer-performers, with a hyphen.” The driven, confident and knowledgeable Abbi and Ilana who write their show are the ones I want to watch and laugh with. Ilana calls Broad City a “tangible celebration of being alive,” but I don’t agree.
Am I the only woman in her twenties who doesn’t want to watch television about girls her age screwing everything up? Comedy can be an exaggeration, or the heightening of a relatable situation, but Broad City chooses to exaggerate the misconception that women my age are, essentially, a mess.
In Broad City’s defense, it’s not alone. There are so many shows on TV right now doing just that, and only that.
HBO’s Girls is a dramedy, so the fact that it makes me want to die a slow, second-hand-humiliation-fueled death under my duvet is warranted. But 2 Broke Girls and New Girl follow the same formula as Broad City, although Broad City is much funnier. As far as I can gather, the formula sounds like this: “Young women are hot right now, but instead of incorporating the complex labyrinth of urges that women ages 20-40 experience, let’s just have these characters flail around wearing bright colors for thirty minutes!” I have the distinct feeling that Elaine Benes from early Seinfeld episodes would find all these characters annoying. She was selfish, and she had as much luck as Jerry Seinfeld’s character in the dating world (not to mention she was written primarily by men), but she navigated expectations of gender and power by succeeding professionally, and by speaking candidly about masturbation and casual sex. That was groundbreaking at the time. It’s not now.
It’s an old stand-by in improv that any character is made more compelling if they’re good at something. Anything. You can’t just stand on stage and fail over and over, because it gets to feeling stale. So, in that vein, I’ll take a morally-conflicted, overworked, obnoxious Leslie Knope over a night-cheese-eating, romantically challenged, human mess Liz Lemon, any day. I’m tired of watching female characters undercut with that classic “klutz” trait, as if writers are nervous that she can’t get laughs without being the butt of the joke. I’m thinking specifically about Abbi destroying a mirror with a kettlebell in season 2. By the time she got to a position to achieve her objective and become a trainer, the emotional stakes felt too low for the scene to matter. We already knew she was going to fail, so it wasn’t as funny when she did.
Now, I don’t need a sitcom to empower all of its female characters; it’s not about Abbi finally getting to work as a trainer at the gym, or Ilana finally coming to terms with her relationship with Lincoln. It’s about writing female characters into a show who have mental clarity and agency in their environments. In one episode, Abbi isn’t sure if she’s into pegging her neighbor Jeremy, and then with a little urging it turns out she likes it, but then they argue and the plotline ends with no real resolution or change, although the storyline with Jeremy and Abbi had been built up for so long. If she’s not affected by the sitcom’s plot at all, then how can I feel connected to what’s happening?
A female character doesn’t have to be completely out of touch with her environment to get laughs. That’s not comedy, that’s Two and a Half Men. Half the time, Abbi only has a small percentage of a clue as to what’s happening in any given scene, and Ilana has an even smaller grasp on the plot. Neither of them can speak effectively to their bosses; Abbi is a pushover and Ilana manipulates her pitiful supervisor, but neither of them really get ahead using their strategies. Abbi gets literal tunnel vision when she talks to Jeremy, losing control of her body and forgetting where she is. Ilana may be better at getting laid, but she often seems ignorant to her own feelings about Lincoln.
Things happen to Abbi and Ilana more often than we see either of them making something happen. Broad City depicts an entirely slapstick lifestyle, which I guess some critics will say mirrors our millennial confusion or whatever, but I’m not trying to look into a mirror here. I’m trying to watch something that’ll transport me.
I’ve been in love with comedy since I was a kid. I got in trouble for staying up too late to watch reruns of I Love Lucy. Lucy and Ethel could only operate within the confines of their 1950s domestic lives, but it didn’t make them any less clever. Lucy manipulated her husband’s environment while he wasn’t paying attention, and each episode typically climaxed in a scene where Ricky came up and demanded Lucy explain herself. I Love Lucy was groundbreaking. The audience, both male and female, identified with the madcap struggles of a housewife as she got what she wanted and solved dilemmas. It’s not that Lucy Ricardo’s goals were profound. She was selfish and conniving and skilled. That’s what I loved.
Carla on Cheers wasn’t a portrait of female empowerment either. She hated her job waiting on drunk people, and she was always pregnant or complaining about her kids or her husband. But she was pitted against characters like Diane, scene after scene, playing the character who was consistently, intelligently, in on the joke. Diane was naive, and was often played that way for laughs, but she was also often the most intelligent person in the bar and got some barbs in when Sam needed to be taken down a peg.
My point is, both characters were female, and they didn’t necessarily like each other, but they were unique variables in the equation that supported any given Cheers episode. Their audience watched them pursue funny goals using the skills afforded to them by their personalities and backgrounds, even if their goal was just to make someone in the bar look dumb for a second. I’m not convinced the main characters in Broad City could pull off that kind of wit, although I know the actresses behind them could. Why the disconnect?
You might be thinking, “Uh, maybe you should watch something that was filmed after 1982 and get with the times,” but I refuse to believe that Broad City represents some kind of comedic renaissance for the contemporary female character. Watching Selina Meyers threaten senators on Veep is so much more fun, and her right hand woman Amy is viciously funny too. Selina isn’t good at everything; she can’t seem to cut ties with her ex-husband and she had one of her assistants dump another guy for her while she ran away. She’s not a better person than Abbi or Ilana (in fact, she’s almost definitely a worse person), but she’s good at her job, and she moves the plot along as an active part of her own story.
Leslie Knope, as I mentioned before, is another great example of a female character who pulls off being simultaneously funny and successful. When Parks and Recreation began, Amy Poehler was cast as a female Michael Scott stand-in, clueless to her surroundings and terrible at working with others. As the show developed, something awesome started happening: Leslie Knope became more well-rounded, as if the writers realized her professional skills didn’t have to detract from how funny she was on screen.
This made room for other female characters who were good at things, including one of my all-time favorites, Donna Meagle. Donna developed from a minor throwaway character into a hilariously capable woman who enjoyed cigars, “fine leather goods” and telling her date to wait for her in the car. Even Aubrey Plaza’s April Ludgate was allowed some texture, morphing from a deadpan foil character for Leslie into a fleshed-out, flawed, and funny mentee.
Maybe I just wish Broad City’s Ilana had a little more Mindy Lahiri in her. Mindy Kaling’s protagonist on The Mindy Project is a classically difficult presence on screen, often causing conflicts with other characters based on whims she later decides are unreasonable. She values certain things, like the classic rom-com narrative, her curviness and fashion sense, and getting ahead in her profession, more than she values others, and her boyfriend Danny Castellano is often frustrated with her shortcomings and quirks. Most importantly, though, Mindy falls and gets back up again.
If anyone wants to argue that Ilana and Abbi are younger than the characters I’ve described, and thus have more room to grow, I’d point you to Maeby Fünke in Arrested Development, Louise Belcher in Bob’s Burgers, Mary Richards from the early seasons of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or Denise Huxtable in A Different World. There are ways to depict young women in comedic roles that showcase their talents and allow them to be forces in their own lives.
A woman doesn’t have to be a hot mess to be funny. She can be both, as both Broad City’s Ilana and Abbi admittedly are. I just have a lot more fun watching comedic characters who are also professionally, personally, romantically or narratively successful. I think it’s harder to do, and therefore more interesting.