Because it’s new and you may not be watching it yet, you should know that Broad City is a program on Comedy Central and that it is about two young women who inhabit the less-manicured corners of New York City and who enjoy, in no apparent order, weed, cunnilingus, and each other’s company. And because this description sounds silly, and because there’s no real way to capture the show’s anarchic magic other than to rush head-on into its world, and because we offer too many encomiums these days to TV shows that we deem greater than the sum of their parts, let me be clear: Broad City isn’t just funny. It’s important. And it belongs in the same pantheon with a small group of iconoclastic artists, so many of them Jewish, who have redefined culture with loud and libidinal bursts of energy and made it joyous again. Think Lenny Bruce. Think Joey Ramone. Think Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer.
The last two are Broad City’s stars, and if you need to know anything about them you should know that the pilot to their television show revolved around trying to score some cash to buy tickets to a secret Li’l Wayne concert. Instead of the usual stuff that makes pilots TV’s slow-witted children—all that endless exposition and character introduction and seminal events that set the show’s premise in motion—Abbi and Ilana just hang out. They steal and sell office supplies for some extra dough. They try to drum on buckets in the park, but a pesky breakdancer steps up front and steals their thunder and their bread. Finally, a few coins short, they put up an ad on Craigslist that reads “2 Jewesses trying 2 make a buck.” Hilarity ensues, as do mild drunkenness, excessive lewdness, sex that feels genuinely lustful, and friendship that feels real.
That might not sound like much, but compare Abbi and Ilana to other young people—particularly young women—on television these days, and their genius becomes apparent. From New Girl to Girls, shows about young women in big cities follow a familiar pattern. Each in its own way revolves around an immature oaf who skates as close as possible to insufferable self-indulgence before reminding us, with a wink and a nod, that what we’re really watching is a subtle critique, a self-aware and wry take on a self-aware and wry generation. This reflexivity has all the charm of an undergraduate drama exercise. When we see it unfold—when we see, for example, Lena Dunham in yet another exhibition of explicit and mortifying copulation—we’re left to wonder if we’re expected to laugh, or cringe, or contemplate the whole exchange in light of gender theory and the cinematic tradition of subjecting women to the male gaze. And that is not only exhausting but rarely funny.
Abbi and Ilana do something else. Pardon the vulgarity, but Abbi and Ilana fuck. They fuck like any normal and happy and horny twentysomething human being who is alive and well on this planet. Rather than take a page from Dunham’s inane playbook and stage any intercourse as a tortured tragicomic exchange of guilt and doubt and loathing, Abbi and Ilana enjoy themselves just having sex, talking to each other on their webcams as they ride boys they refuse to define as their boyfriends.
The same is true for every other aspect of life in Broad City. The show has no interest in career or family or the crushing feeling of inadequacy one usually feels when failing to cultivate both. Abbi’s only career goal is to move from cleaning pubic hair out of the women’s locker room of a cultish spinning studio to serving as an instructor there, and Ilana’s vocational aspirations are limited to wearing outrageously inappropriate outfits to work, going on break for hours on end, and gleefully resisting any attempt at being saddled with responsibility. Faced with such inertia, other TV characters would have spent a season or two moping, like Dunham’s Hannah Horvath or, like Zooey Deschanel’s Jess on New Girl, immersed in twee nonsense like playing handbells or attempting Nancy Drew fan fiction. Abbi and Ilana cope by shuffling around downtown Manhattan with drugs in their vaginas (the vagina, Ilana muses, being “nature’s pocket”), salvaging a few discarded bagels from the trash, and macking on dudes. It may not be a great blueprint for a well-balanced adult life, but it’s a lot of fun to watch.
And fun—filthy, glorious fun—is what we desperately need right now. Because culture is cyclical, we’re once again at that moment in which we seem mainly interested in producing self-regarding drivel we hail as profound. We’ve been there with Hollywood’s stodgy spectacles of the 1950s, and we were redeemed a generation later when Spielberg, Scorsese, et al., emerged from their film schools and made movies thrilling again. We’ve been there when prog rock unleashed a torrent of interminable concept albums full of organ solos and bad ideas and creepy covers, and we were rescued when the Ramones and the Dictators and Richard Hell and others took over and played their three-chord masterpieces giddily and loudly. Now it seems we may be delivered again by Abbi and Ilana and their energetic, irreverent, and hilarious show. The least we could do to thank them is watch it.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.