It’s time to toss out the argument that a TV comedy’s protagonists should be “likable.” Well-behaved people seldom make comic history, but it’s possible—it just so happens that Girls, Louie, New Girl, and The Mindy Project all plunked down near the end of a sitcom wave that preferred the warm fuzzies of Parks And Recreation, The Office, and the like. But before that came Seinfeld and Everybody Loves Raymond, the former of which was a direct response to the feel-good sitcoms of the ’80s—which where themselves a turn of the cycle from a ’70s vanguard that treasured its optimists and idealists and its cranks and its curmudgeons in equal measure.
Swallowed up in the changing tides of sitcom trends—which also omits outliers like The Simpsons, Arrested Development, or Curb Your Enthusiasm—are the basic-cable comedies of the past decade, from which no redeemable quality comes without a dozen humorous and/or endearing flaws. That’s the bread and butter of Comedy Central, which made a nation fall for Eric Cartman—a noted bigot and confessed accessory to murder—before building cults around the entertainingly insufferable personalities on Reno 911!, The Sarah Silverman Program, and Stella. Now comes Broad City—a half-hour adaptation of the web series of the same name—and its fictionalized versions of its stars and creators, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson. Broke and desperate, Ilana and Abbi make a lot of bad decisions and rarely make the right call—but that strengthens their bona fides as comic leads.
Broad City presents a recognizable, recognizably hilarious perspective on what trying-but-failing looks like from the inside. It’s a portrait of twentysomething life captured in Netflix binges and shitty entry-level jobs, but Glazer and Jacobson present their characters as perpetually unsinkable. There’s a hustle at the core of Broad City, in multiple senses of the word: Ilana’s incorrigible scheming as well as her frantically paced misadventures with best friend Abbi. The pinnacle of the Broad City web shorts follows the duo as they race toward some unknown destination, and that spirit and zest gives a good boost to the show’s hybrid of sketch and sitcom structures. Both episodes screened for critics—the premiere, “What A Wonderful World,” and the February 5 installment, “Working Girls”—depict impossible quests wrapped around schedules that are superficially demanding. But to the benefit of the show’s tangent-prone sense of humor, those itineraries have a lot of wiggle room, geographically and temporally.
That energy spills effortlessly forth from the relationship between the protagonists, one that’s presumably informed by Glazer and Jacobson’s real-life bond. The codependence of that connection is played to ludicrous extremes—Ilana doesn’t have a strong sense of boundaries with regard to electronic correspondence—yet there’s honesty beneath all that absurdity. In an era where it’s too easy to stay “in touch” with friends without the burden of legitimately staying in contact, Ilana and Abbi are never out of earshot from one another. No activity is out of bounds for a phone call or a Skype chat: Not a grocery store trip that turns into the purchase of too many condoms, and certainly not the act during which those condoms are used. The kernel of truth in all this involves the importance of friendship at the time of life depicted in Broad City. The genuine warmth there calls to mind Mary Richards and Rhoda Morgenstern—if Valerie Harper’s TV hippie was allowed to come within 100 yards of a marijuana plant.
That sense of support and community imbues all aspects of Broad City. Like their cross-continent peers on The Birthday Boys, Glazer and Jacobson are on one end of a comic torch-passing: Executive producer Amy Poehler has been visible and vocal in her promotion for the series; “Working Girls” boasts appearances by Janeane Garofalo and Rachel Dratch. Broad City’s ties to the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater gives the show a rich pool of rising-and-unsung talent to pull from, too, with UCB stalwarts Chris Gethard and John Gemberling doing excellent work as the two primary nuisances in Ilana and Abbi’s lives. Hannibal Buress carries over from the series’ web incarnation in the role of Ilana’s serious-but-not-that-serious squeeze, and the role is the finest TV distillation of his stand-up persona to date. Nobody can sell an unexpected-but-totally-accurate non sequitur about a Who’s The Boss castmember like Buress—with the exception of Glazer and Jacobson’s immediate and uproarious reactions to that non sequitur.
As a method of showcasing likeminded contemporaries, the city is just as important as the broads—and that extends to the show’s setting, too. A major component of the show’s spark is the bustling activity of New York City, and in the space of two episodes, Broad City is already doing a spectacular job of showing off the five boroughs’ versatility. The city’s parks make their requisite appearances, but so do a Lynchian industrial space made up to be the uninhabited North Brother Island. The characters haven’t earned admissions to the glamorous parts of their hometown, and so Broad City digs deep to find parts of New York City that don’t often turn up on TV.
But that would be a lot of empty TV tourism and friendly assists to the UCB crowd without Glazer and Jacobson serving as solid anchors. They’re playing fuck-ups, but they’re fuck-ups worth rooting for. In “Working Girls,” Ilana slags off through three separate jobs—but at least she’s holding down three jobs at the same time. Broad City doesn’t ask the viewer to respect its characters, but it does want them see something of themselves in Ilana and Abbi. Because it’s not their job to be likable—they just have to be funny. And they’re already plenty good at that.
Created by: Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer
Starring: Abbi Jacobson, Ilana Glazer, John Gemberling, Stephen Schneider, and Hannibal Buress
Debuts: Wednesday at 10:30 p.m. Eastern on Comedy Central
Format: Half-hour single-camera comedy
Two episodes watched for review