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tv review

Seitz on Broad City: Stuck Between Sketch Comedy Broadness and Real World Nuance

Broad City might make a bigger impression if there weren't already so many odes to aimless white urban twentysomethings on television. Created by Upright Citizens Brigade alums Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, who star as the same-first-named best friends, this new sitcom started as a web series and might need a few more weeks to find its creative footing. The first two installments are moderately sharp and funny, with a true satirical undertow (you can watch the pilot here). It sends up a particular, privileged way of seeing the world, even as it points out that that same sense of privilege is being threatened by an economy that turns nearly everyone who isn't already rich into a serf of sorts.

That's all good. Problem is, these same episodes lurch between nuanced observation of real-world trivialities and goofy sketch comedy exaggeration, and their flashes of spiky personality don't alleviate the feeling that, content-wise, the show is stuck in that regrettably familiar commercial cable bind: not safe, exactly, but not dangerous, either. The show is not as riskily raunchy as Girls, without which it surely would not have gotten green-lit (the web series started in 2009, Girls in 2012), but the characters are just abrasive and aimless enough to be unthinkable on a broadcast network. It's stuck in the middle of something, and I'm not entirely convinced it knows what that something is.

Abbi and Ilana enact the familiar sweet drudge/wannabe party animal pairing that you often see in romantic comedies. Abbi works as a custodian at a faux-swanky health club called Soulstice, where her supervisor praises her toilet-cleaning skills. Her pal Ilana works at a coupon-pushing operation called Deals NYC; her supervisor acts as if he's leading a band of heroic warriors when they're actually just tapping away at keyboards all day and listening to him prattle about his love life and the company's rules and regulations. "What's that odor?" he asks, sniffing the air expectantly. "I think it's the scent of a deal!" 

Abbi keeps urging Ilana to leave the stir-fry and the Damages videos at home for one night and go out for a change — "ImgettingmypaychecktodayandIcanspotyou bi-iiiiiiitch!” she sing-songs to Abbi, in of of many split-screened Skype convos —but money is always a problem for these young women, just as it's a problem for almost everyone who isn't rich these days. Broad City gets the permanent freelancer economy right, I'll give it that. If you've ever gotten jerked around by a boss who says you'll get paid when the checks are "cut" — as if checks had to be hacked from the earth like marble — you'll cringe at Ilana's holding-pattern anxiety, as well as the steps she takes to get a measly $200 for her and Abbi. (Suffice to say that they're maids, but not the usual kind, and that their client is Fred Armisen in a pencil mustache.) 

The show also demonstrates more sophistication about race (particularly as it's conceived through white privilege) than most comedies about young urban white folks. Abbi and Ilana are wage slaves of a sort, and the show is correct to depict them as such, but the slave parallel will only take you so far, and the girls smack their foreheads against the boundaries more often than you might expect, starting with a convenience store conversation about slavery that cuts off when they approach their black cashier. Ilana has an African-American boyfriend, Lincoln (comedian Hannibal Burress), but treats him as a no-frills hookup, even though it's clear that Lincoln really likes her and wants more than she's wiling to give. The show is smart to conflate Ilana's compartmentalization of Lincoln and the way that sitcoms about young white singles compartmentalize supporting characters who aren't white or straight or otherwise "typical." "This is purely physical," she tells him. "Why does this always happen to me?" he asks, even though he, we, and Broad City already know the answer.

If Broad City were more sure of its mission, its tone, or both, it could turn into a genuinely impressive show. As is, though, there's an anything-for-a-laugh sensibility (again, characteristic of many shows created by sketch comedians). It tends to go big whenever the momentum flags, shattering the surprisingly delicate satire it so often creates. The pleasant shock of hearing people say things people say all the time is neutralized by the annoyance of hearing people say things no humans have ever uttered. "Abby, let me know if you have AIDS," her boss asks, bizarrely. "If I do, you'll be the first one to find out," she replies. And the shtick — typified by Armisen's cameo, which I won't describe in detail in case you find it funny — wants to be outrageous but has an off-year Saturday Night Live feeling. It's frustrating seeing a show fail to live up to its potential, even one about two young women suffering from the same kind of paralysis.

Photo: Linda Kallerus/Comedy Central