Hannibal Buress, Ilana Glazer, Arturo Castro and Abbi Jacobson of "Broad City" (Comedy Central/Matt Peyton)

"I'm not saying you're wrong": Why Abbi is the best part of "Broad City"

The creators of this show are the modern-day heirs to the Marx Brothers -- but Abbi is wildly underappreciated


Laura Miller
January 19, 2015 3:00AM (UTC)

The first thing anyone will tell you about the half-hour comedy series "Broad City" is that it's raunchy, and Season 2, which premiered on Comedy Central last week, certainly lives up to that label. In the first episode alone, jokes feature a wad of paper towels deployed to fight "swamp ass" and a turd deposited in the middle of a subway car floor, plus a debate between the two main characters, Abbi and Ilana, over Ilana's theory that "fat dudes' dicks get sucked back inside their bodies."

Given how creatively "Broad City" deploys its brand of body humor, that would be enough to keep a sizable audience coming back to the series, but not me and not plenty of other viewers who ought to give it a try. Fortunately, "Broad City" may be rude and crude, but it's also one of the most sophisticated comedies on the small screen.

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By "sophisticated" I don't mean the refined drawing-room wit of Whit Stillman's "The Cosmopolitans" or the dramedy-style character studies of "Girls." There's not a lot of what's conventionally known as depth to either Abbi or Ilana (played by Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer), best friends tackling the everyday vexations of life in New York City with little money and even fewer long-term plans. Their adventures mostly consist of harebrained schemes and scrapes, and they transpire in the trauma-free neverland occupied by many sitcom denizens. Unlike the characters in "Girls," no one in "Broad City" is caught up in a mythic, romantic dream of making it in the Big Apple. Rather, they seem to have just washed up there -- and, sure enough, Season 2 confirms that Ilana's parents live not far away.

What "Broad City" does do (when it's not gleefully wringing laughs from strap-ons and feces, that is) is revive the intuitive spirit and grace of the classic cinematic comedy of the 1920s and '30s. Ilana is the show's most immediately arresting character, a vim-fueled bottle rocket with a penumbra of corkscrew curls and a smile whose wattage rivals a Broadway marquee. She's a polymorphously horny, rubber-limbed imp with a job she flagrantly shirks, along with all forms of decorum. Season 2's opening sequence -- a "Snowpiercer" vamp involving a trek through a series of subway cars -- ends with the two women standing sheepishly among a crowd of Hassidic men; as they step out the door, Ilana, naturally, has to smack one of them on the butt.

If she weren't such a chatterbox, it might be more obvious that Ilana is Harpo Marx with the mute button turned off; she embodies the spirit of perpetual mischief. "Broad City" draws heavily from the vein of absurdist humor the Marx Brothers perfected on stage and screen. You can see this in the mock melodrama of such verbal gags as Ilana's roommate, Jaime, tearfully, dramatically confessing to a series of insignificant transgressions during a hurricane blackout.

But the scene that permanently won me over comes in the middle of Season 1's third episode when Abbi, after missing delivery of a package she agreed to sign for on behalf of her dreamy neighbor, has to shlep out to a remote island in the East River to retrieve it. (Every New Yorker has had some version of this experience.) This means riding to the end of the subway line, then boarding an obscure bus and finally, under a lowering sky, a water taxi, on which all of her fellow passengers are creepy pairs of identical twins. The island itself is a trackless, weedy ruin where the apparition of a sepia-toned child in a tweed cap can be glimpsed playing with a toy hoop. In the "distribution center," an otherwise deserted warehouse, sits a solitary crone at a card table, wearing the name tag "Garol" and spooning plain yogurt from a quart container.

This sequence is elaborate and preposterous enough to stake a claim: "Broad City" is not going to rely solely on Ilana monologues about stashing your weed in your "front hole." Most crass humor is sloppy and loose because its appeal resides in casting off order and restraint. "Broad City," by contrast, is intricately constructed, the episodes linked with an interlocking web of recurring motifs: jawbreakers; Bed, Bath & Beyond and an (entirely mythical) great sushi place located under Penn Station. While weaving through the subway cars in the first episode of Season 2, the friends pass a pair of young women with mace-burned faces, a call-back to the fourth episode of Season 1, when they had to ride the train after being maced by Ilana's neighbor; one of their doppelgängers is even holding a curtain rod that resembles a subway pole, just as Ilana did.

In counterpoint to Ilana's Marxian spirit of anarchy, Abbi, in female form, reincarnates the great deadpan everymen of silent film comedy. Some critics, like my colleague Sonia Saraiya, have found Abbi to be overly downtrodden, the series' weak point. I beg to differ. Certainly Abbi gets more than her fair share of knocks: The manager of the gym where she works as a cleaner ignores her obvious desire to lead a class; her roommate's disgusting boyfriend is permanently parked on her sofa and a budding romance goes south when the guy explains that he'd rather call the whole thing off than go to Penn Station with her. But Abbi's modest dreams and incessant frustrations (another running joke concerns her fury at being taken for a mother) are so completely relatable that they tether the anarchic elements of "Broad City" to earth, much as the cheesy romances introduced into Marx Brothers films tried, and failed, to do.

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Abbi has a habit of sucking in her lips and enduring that recalls Buster Keaton as his abashed and stoic best. Such moments often end up being the most ambiently funny in the series because this long-suffering young woman's thwarted attempts to get what she wants and needs feel so universal and familiar. Abbi is not quite Ilana's straight woman, but she comes close, and yet it's this very role that wins her her strongest laughs. Ilana is a sort of monster (the only thing she really cares about is Abbi), and Abbi is every reasonably decent person who has loved and tried to wrangle such a crazy force of nature into something a bit more humane. "I'm not saying you're wrong," she patiently tells Ilana of her fat-men's-dicks theory at the beginning of Season 2, "I just don't understand the sucking back inside their bodies part of it."

Many of Abbi's attacks of conscience are farcical, such as concluding she's a rapist because a man she was having sex with passed out from heat exhaustion in the middle of the act and she "finished" anyway. Still, she has a conscience, which Ilana mostly doesn't. Abbi cares more about doing the right thing than anyone on, say, "Seinfeld" (another depiction of largely idle, eccentric New Yorker) ever did. She's the soul of the series, even if the series doesn't place the highest premium on soulfulness. Her face -- an ever-shifting mirror of humiliation, resolve, bewilderment and hope -- is a sketch of the human condition.

"Broad City" frequently invokes the observational humor of "Seinfeld," albeit aimed at a different, scrappier sensibility. At times it sounds notes that are eerily eternal, and in its most outlandish moments it can suddenly register as realistic. It's been a long time since I was in my mid-20s, but apparently young women of that age and a certain type still find themselves dressed up and headed to a wedding with a coked-up gay former co-worker who spends the whole time talking about the overdoses and crackups of mutual acquaintances. I guess some things never change, but who knew that was one of them?


Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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