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.

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“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 the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.