Generalizations About Broads: Comedy Central’s “Broad City”

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Broad City is the new working-girls sitcom produced by superstar Amy Poehler, is about two twenty-something women living in New York City. Who smoke pot. First, a quick bit about pot and TV…

Be thankful for cable, because major networks are pretty square on pot. Broadcast network standards basically require pot smoking to obscure the smoker’s face, helping to keep cannabis portrayal unseemly. Depicting a marijuana high on classic TV has generally meant an LSD trip montage, because the audience couldn’t admit to knowing better. You could always show it as part of anti-drug propaganda bearing federal approval. But even That 70’s Show never actually SHOWED the doobie being passed around.

Lots of smoke, but no firing it up on That '70s Show

Lots of smoke, but no firing it up on That ’70s Show

Much like prohibition helped legally make pot taboo, so did broadcast restrictions. Cable has different and looser standards, but until recently, was still hesitant to show pot smoking as normal. Showtime’s Weeds in 2005 helped changed that. Within a few years, lots of shows had “stoner characters” or stanky story-lines as cheap comedic relief.

Now back to that TV show I started with…

Almost every Broad City commercial reminds me that yes, these girls smoke, and vape. (The dabbing, I assume, comes in Season 2). They do, and they show it, and it’s no big deal. Even in New York parks, in broad daylight. Risque!

Loads of comedies have played on the idea of “a show about nothing.” It used to be daring when Seinfeld did it because it was untried. But in 2014, its so tried it’s tired. Comedy Central already had one, Workaholics. Broad City is that, with two women instead of three dudes. In a city instead of a suburb. Is it about catching more lady-eyeballs? Or broadening (#zing) women’s perspective on comedy to an often male audience?

Four episodes in, it feels like both. If Lena Dunham, creator of the award-winning and only slightly overhyped Girls, demanded pitching her show to Comedy Central instead of HBO, Broad City would be the result.

The show’s main “broads” are Abbi (Abbi Jacobson) and Ilana (Ilana Glazer). Abbi is responsible but jinxed; Ilana, irresponsible and dumb-lucky. Abbi wants mainstream things: the bearded neighbor hunk, a promotion at work, to be a responsible adult. Ilena wants an outsider mystique, the low-down on a good rave, and an eighth of skunky green . Abbi is the ego, Ilana an incorrigible id.

This is a familiar combo and the actresses, alums of the comedic aristocracy known as the Upright Citizens Brigade, pull it off well. But I’ve wondered: will pot smoking just be a MacGuffin for insanity, or will it be relevant to who these characters are and how they behave? I’m fine with cute ladies lighting up, but lose interest in weak stereotyping.

BroadCityBicycleThe second episode, “P_ssy Weed,” really delivered on this front. Abbi’s mission for the episode is to stop mooching pot off Ilana and get her own. This leads to efforts to buy, carry, and use pot, which all become funny. The characters end with a conversation that doesn’t sound forced or “fairy tale” in expectation, but encourages some kind of responsibility with toking. And there are solid jokes about smoking, buying, abuse, and bad parenting that could actually trigger conversations about do’s and don’ts – discussion American media has been barred from having until very recently.

Fortunately the show is not all, or even mostly about grass – “P_ssy Weed” is just another day of antics and struggles. The girls are believable extremes in a mostly plausible world. After an increasingly cut-away, flashback-y era of sitcoms, Broad City feels grounded. It’s jokes can be visual, observational, and closer to reality than expected, while getting real laughs.

And though it’s a show about ladies, they are backed up by some very funny guys. Abbi’s unseen roommate’s boyfriend, Bevers (John Gemberling) is a Zach Galifinakis type. While a Galifinakis character might stroll across a room nude because he thinks you’ll be pleased, Bevers stumbles bare-assed to the fridge because he’s thirsty and has no shame. It’s tough to be watchable while being boorish, but Gemberling nails it with a grin.

BroadCityThe other male character is Ilana’s “guy friend” Lincoln (Hannibal Buress). He’s respectful, supportive, successful, and (kind of assuming here) attractive enough that it’s supposedly a wonder Ilana doesn’t want him. However it’s clear that Ilana is Abbi-sexual, and most in the mood when thinking about (or with?) her BFF. Buress has a delivery that softly sticks every line about why he’s grown up, making him sound like a kid.

In many ways, Broad City mirrors the “show about nothing” formula underlying Seinfeld, including the device that the main characters are dysfunctional, a bit selfish and petty. But other in other sitcoms within this genre, the characters tend to stay terrible, get worse, or go 4 seasons before anything resembling character growth. Is that all that funny? Or are there laughs in going from terrible nobodies to slightly terrible somebodies?

Hopefully, these broads are clever enough to find out. Broad City is on Wednesday nights at 10:30 on Comedy Central.