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Dystopian pop-up shops and toilet humour: Broad City's triumphant return

Three seasons in, and we’re as invested in the onscreen friendship between Abbi Abrams and Ilana Wexler as ever.

“Oh, I guarantee I could identify my own butthole in a line-up, 100 per cent.”

“Even if it’s just a close-up line-up of buttholes? No way, dude, come on.”

“Completely, I could identify yours! Each one has a soul. An ass-soul.”

Strange, crass, over-familiar, affectionate: this is the humour of Broad City, Comedy Central’s series following Abbi Abrams and Ilana Wexler, two friends who spend every second of every day together (if not physically, then via phone calls, texts, and endless video calls from their respective apartments). They spend their days smoking pot, boldly attempting to navigate the surreal horror of New York City, and very occasionally turning up at their mildly dispiriting jobs. The show’s female-fronted stoner-style comedy has seen it skyrocket into the mainstream – the first two seasons included a dog wedding, incestuous friends, dental anaesthetic-fuelled hallucinations, counterfeit bag crimes, a dildo at a funeral, a “white power suit”, and a microcosmic frozen yoghurt cafe.


You’d be forgiven for thinking that after 20 episodes of such high-tempo humour, the show’s writers and stars might struggle to maintain momentum over a third series. But you’d also be wrong. In the first three episodes, Abbi and Ilana find themselves, in no particular order, in a competitive basketball match with four eight-year olds, at an art exhibition at an edgy gallery (pierced with an accuracy Zoolander 2 could only dream of), banned for life from a hipster cooperative, and ten feet in the air inside a portaloo. There are fantasy sequences and musical scenes: one episode ends with a full-blown performance of Lauren Hill’s Nineties version of “The Hymn of Joy” as featured in Sister Act 2 (Whoopi Goldberg arrives, complete with habit).

The strangeness of the city in season three manifests itself in similar ways. A dystopian pop-up shop that disappears literally five minutes after Abbi buys a top there is in the same vein as the abandoned warehouse-cum-distribution centre, staffed only by the ancient, yoghurt-guzzling Garol, where Abbi must collect a package in season two. But the show never feels repetitive – instead, you feel like you’re just scratching the surface of Broad City’s urban landscape, which is an almost supernatural place (the first episode of series three hints at monsters living in the sewers) that is never fully knowable. Certain lines nod at its off-screen presence: Abbi sighs down the phone to Ilana, “I’m at the park where that dude stole my other sandal”, a sentence that made me laugh out loud.

This surreality is also injected with realism: New York is, in many ways, stranger than fiction. Broad City knows the inherent insanity of a city where you have to queue for an hour and 45 minutes to get a weekend brunch table, where you can’t pay rent but can waste a morning queuing for aspirational, overpriced “churons” (that’s churros meet macarons, obviously).

The show finds the ridiculous in urban youth culture from the inside (so it never gets Old Man Yells At Cloud about stuff), whether it’s enthusiastically nude gym bunnies shaving their pubes to lose an extra pound or a man bun-sporting health-food obsessive with a tattoo “inspired by a Bukowski poem”. This extends into internet culture – a particularly excruciating plotline sees Ilana get promoted by an investor at Deals! Deals! Deals! (played by a sharp-shouldered Vanessa Williams) for her understanding of viral content: “Saladfingers! It’s early randomcore.”

Of course, this is all undercut by good old-fashioned toilet humour and slapstick: Ilana gets so horny she literally humps a tree, Abbi sings about her bowel movements (“It’s like: ‘Dump out / Flawless / Dump out / Flawless!’”). The opening scene of the first episode is worldlessly hilarious – showing everything Abbi and Ilana get up to in their bathrooms, including eating, hooking up, getting high, napping, shaving, reading up on politics.

Broad City is as much about two women bumming around in their bedrooms or wandering around aimlessly as it is about farcical adventures. The central friendship is where the heart of the show lies. It is lived-in and textured enough to sustain the weirdness that orbits it. There are jokes that rely on the minutiae of their relationship: Ilana soothes Abbi with the image, “BB&B right when it opens”. But, unlike, say, later seasons of Friends, Abbi and Ilana are never reduced to one-dimensional character traits for laughs. A plotline that sees Abbi impersonate Ilana for a full day is hilarious because Abbi’s performance misses the nuance of Ilana’s identity, and the audience knows it. The show is three seasons in, and we feel like we know these characters that intimately, too.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Smart and politically alert, Black Panther will inspire a generation of film students

Plus, Wakanda has a border control system to make Theresa May swoon. 

Before I went to see Black Panther, I had no idea whether or not it would be any good. That might sound strange, given the positive buzz around it, but I did have a nagging suspicion that “being nice about the first black-led Marvel film” might have got mixed up with “parading my anti-racist credentials on social media”.

Well, that suspicion was an unworthy one. Black Panther is not just smart and politically aware for a superhero film – it’s smart and politically aware, full stop. Its central conflict springs from its alternate-reality vision of Africa: specifically, a country called Wakanda, home of the world’s only reserves of “vibranium”. This has allowed Wakanda to become more technologically advanced than the West – “it’s as easy as riding a hoverbike”, the country’s chief scientist says to a bemused American at one point – and it has not only never been colonised, but never been mapped. It hides its lush plains and skyscrapers inside a holographic mountain.

A rare, mystical natural resource might be a staple of fantasy films (think of Avatar’s Ronsealishly named unobtainium), but putting it in the middle of Africa gives the film both a historical resonance – untold misery was caused by the 19th century efforts of European powers to secure the continent’s mineral wealth – and a contemporary one. It’s impossible to make a smartphone without rare earth metals, and some of the places where these are found, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, suffer from what economists call a “resource curse”. Without strong governments and infrastructure, the vast wealth obtainable by mining creates opportunities for corruption, and funds militias and civil wars.

Rare resources also attract vultures: which is exactly what Wakanda’s rulers fear. If they share the source of their power,  and give away their only advantage over the West, how will they be treated? A glance at their continental neighbours would be anything but reassuring.

That question – could you honestly advise Wakanda to share its vibranium with the world? – is interesting enough. But the film’s politics go even deeper, into uncomfortable questions about culture and immigration. All Wakandans have a tattoo on their inner lips, which grants them access to the kingdom: it’s a border control system that would make Theresa May swoon.

Early in the film, King T’Challa (whose alter ego is the superhero Black Panther) discusses with one of his closest advisers whether or not they have a duty to their fellow Africans, particularly refugees. W’Kabi (played by 28-year-old British actor Daniel Kaluuya) offers an argument we are more used to hearing from Trump voters in those worthy American newspaper profiles of flyover states: won’t mass migration mean the end of our unique culture? Putting that sentiment in the mouth of someone from an uncolonised African country is deeply provocative, helping audiences scale what the anthropologist Arlie Russell Hoschchild calls an “empathy wall”. The film ultimately rejects W’Kabi’s position, but it does give it space to be heard.

There’s another layer of sophistication to the political allegory here. The film’s true villain is not the white South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (although the parents who gave him that name really only have themselves to blame that he turned to crime and prosthetic augmentation). It’s the deeply conflicted figure of Killmonger, King T’Challa’s first cousin.

 Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) fights T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). Photo: Marvel.

The king’s father killed his own brother back in 1992 after discovering that he had arranged the theft of a cache of vibranium. The plan was to distribute it to black people around the world, so they could rise up against their (white) oppressors. “I think the best villains are ones that have a point of view that’s relatable and that you can empathise with,” screenwriter Joe Robert Cole said in a recent interview. “Sometimes it’s how far you take things that makes you a villain, and not necessarily the perspective.”

Again, the film gives Killmonger’s argument space to breathe. Raised by a single mother in America, when his dead father asks him in a vision why he has no tears for him, he says that life is cheap here, meaning: black life. The Wakandans are not pacifists – Black Panther can, and will, kill people with his claws – but Killmonger experiences violence as chaotic, meaningless and random. He has been brutalised by the reality of life as a black man in America, and later as a soldier in America’s foreign wars. How radical is that: a $200m Hollywood film where the villain is a personification of America’s domestic and foreign policy?

There is so much more richness in the movie that (I hope) it will inspire a generation of film students. How should we react to a king and his subjects making monkey noises at someone in an ethnic minority, trying to intimidate him into silence? (In this case Martin Freeman’s white CIA agent.) How do black Africans feel about the film’s essentially American perspective, implying a commonality between black citizens in countries with such huge disparities in average income? How do the kind of internet writers who worry about “cultural appropriation” feel about a cast which includes black British, West Indian, Zimbabwean-American and German actors doing Xhosa accents? (“The implicit statement in both the film’s themes and its casting is that there is a connection, however vexed, tenuous, and complicated, among the continent’s scattered descendants,” noted Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker.)

As a white British viewer, the most uncomfortable moment for me was when Killmonger promises that the “sun will never set” on the new Wakandan empire. It reminded me of the developed world’s anxious hope for the future: that the rising nations of the world will treat us better in their pomp than we treated them in ours.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia