“Broad City feels like watching a memory,” my boyfriend observed during the show’s sweet, almost surreal season-two finale, “St. Marks.” I agreed, and it’s in large part due to the distance Broad City has from its characters — it presents the rose-tinted, weed-smoke cloud of Abbi and Ilana’s earlier years as being largely consequence-free. They don’t care much about their jobs, their romantic relationships are casual, and the majority of their days are spent caught up in the sort of frustrating hijinks that are a lot of fun when the highlight of your week is a brunch spent with friends, one-upping each other on who had the most ill-advised hookup the night before.
The thing about those years — and the thing about Broad City — is that kind of blasé aimlessness is only so exciting for so long. At some point, real life intervenes. At some point, you start to grow up.
In season three, Broad City started to play around with giving its characters some real emotional weight, and it’s never been better for it. In “Burning Bridges,” the emotional peak of the season (which, in a perfect world, would have been the season finale), we are shown Abbi and Ilana reaping what they’ve sown with their apathetic attitudes towards their significant-ish others. Abbi’s wish to appear laid-back leads her to accidentally hurt Trey’s feelings, and Ilana, normally impervious to anything other than chilled-out enthusiasm, finds herself crying over Lincoln, whom she never even wanted a commitment from. In a show that’s had so many envelope-pushing moments, there is nothing more subversive than going back to sitcom basics.
That Broad City has become such a cultural moment is both its greatest asset and its Achilles heel. And season four is going to be its biggest challenge, a test of whether it can transcend its current cachet to become a genuine TV staple. The American version of The Office faced this same problem: After three seasons as the most quotable show on prime time, it finally resolved its main conflict and was left spinning its wheels. It found ways to re-imbue itself with real pathos, but I worry for Broad City. It seems to keep inching toward the obvious question at the center of any show about 20-something aimlessness — “what happens after the party’s over?” — but immediately begs off. As much fun as they’re having, Abbi and Ilana have a lot of difficult steps to take to reach adulthood. There’s heartbreak and disappointment and there are tough decisions to be made. In season three, the closer they got to those moments, the better the show was. In season four, what would be better than watching these characters encounter significant, inevitable changes in their lives?
What happens when Ilana gets a dream job in another city? What if Abbi and Trey got serious and Ilana was no longer Abbi’s number-one priority? What happens to the nights spent eating dollar pizza on the street when the big three-zero looms large? The difference between a sketch and a scene is that in a sketch nothing changes, it just gets bigger. In season four, Broad City needs to decide whether or not it’s content being a protracted sketch.
And there is nothing wrong with Broad City continuing to do exactly what it’s been doing. But there are two paths forward for the show here: the Broad City that Broad City is, and the Broad City that Broad City could be. Both versions are fun, GIF-able stoner buddy comedies, deeply embedded in mid-2010s culture. Both have made a permanent mark on pop culture. Both launched the careers of two incredibly hilarious, talented comedians. But the Broad City that Broad City could be dips into the emotional wells that lie just beneath the surface. I am hopeful that is the show we are eventually going to see: not a memory, but something a little more immediate.