Why 'Broad City' Is the Perfect Comedy for the Student Debt Generation
Walking in stylized slow motion, Abbi and Ilana look more like they’re swaggering through a Drake video than heading toward the sales counter at Beacon’s Closet, a selective thrift store in Brooklyn. Abbi proceeds to triumphantly unload a heap of clothes before the store’s fuchsia-lipped, painfully hip attendant. After some quick math, the cashier growls her offer: $13,000 in store credit—or $903 in cash. “Store credit for life,” Ilana cheers. Abbi, ever the responsible one, corrects her: “Dude, I need the money.”
So goes a scene from a recent episode of Broad City, one of television’s most talked about new(ish) shows. For those who haven't seen it, here are some other highlights from the episode (spoiler alert): Ilana (Ilana Glazer) finds herself masturbating—an elaborate ritual involving a mirror fort, an oyster and sea foam lipstick—to Internet porn starring Abbi’s boss, the ever-chipper Trey, otherwise known as the frosted-tipped "Kirk Steele”; Ilana talks a WASPy Park Slope preteen out of becoming another “useless, rich, old white man”; and Abbi (Abbi Jacobson) snorts Chex Mix rye chips for inspiration.
A recent profile of the duo in Grantland confirmed many viewers’ suspicions: that Abbi and Ilana are as funny and enthralling in person as they are onscreen. Ridiculous as they may seem, the characters on the show are only “15 percent exaggerations" of themselves, Glazer has said. Much of what they say and do is drawn from real life. Of the Season One episode where Ilana introduces Abbi to the joys of storing weed in “nature’s pocket,” Jacobson told Grantland: “We didn’t make that up. That really is the only way to travel.”
Pot storage aside, the series offers an all-too-intimate look at the minutiae of the lives of underemployed, educated, twenty-something Jewish women living in New York City. A niche demographic, sure, but one that’s received its fair share of artistic representation in the last few years.
A New Yorker profile of Broad City last year commended the show for being “sneaky in the way it simultaneously celebrates and lampoons naive impertinent millennials, who are at once better than and unready for the adult world they are half-trying to join.” Indeed, show creators Glazer and Jacobson’s onscreen “bra-mance” offers something slyly brilliant in its ability to capture life on the wobbly verge of adulthood in the 2010s. The millennials it speaks to, however, are neither naive nor impertinent—they’re reeling.
America’s college class of 2014 shared the honor of becoming history’s most indebted graduates, having walked across the stage with an average loan burden of $33,000. And while student debt jumped 35 percent from 2005 to 2012, median salaries declined in the same period. Many graduates are taking on low-wage work to make ends meet, or working unsteady, piecemeal gigs to join their cities’ overglamorized and underpaid creative class.
This beleaguered generation has provided the fodder for a new age of dramatized post-adolescence, populated by Abbi, Ilana, HBO’s Girls, Frances Ha, and Obvious Child, among others.
There might be no clearer illustration of how the Great Recession has shaped young womanhood than the gaping divide between the women of these shows and the ones who entertained us just over a decade ago. Amid the relative economic prosperity of the late 1990s, Sex and the City brought viewers the kind of hedonistic white femininity only money could buy. Four highly successful, fully arrived career women debated over luxuriant brunches whether it was really possible to have it all: thriving careers and good sex with beautiful men. To be a Charlotte or a Samantha was something to aspire to, whether for their impeccable taste in designer shoes or their carefree relationship to sex.
Post-2008, the market for TV comedies premised on Jimmy Choos and VIP party attendance appears to be running dry. Saddled with mounting debt and an increasingly precarious job market, even those of us occupying positions of relative privilege are deciding not between Mr. Big and the Russian, but between doing what we love and being able to pay the bills. Where Carrie Bradshaw could inexplicably afford designer handbags on the salary of a weekly newspaper columnist, Abbi and Ilana are selling off their wardrobes to pay the bills.
Still, Sex And the City was important: It paved the way for women on television to have frank, open conversations about sex and their bodies, and to drink with reckless abandon—a foundation on which Glazer and Jacobson happily dance. The point isn’t to say that Ms. Bradshaw was somehow morally bankrupt, only that she was, like all popular characters, a product of her time, as Abbi and Ilana are of theirs.
Whether it was losing their homes and 401Ks in the years after 2008 or seeing thousands occupy Wall Street, Americans across the political spectrum have developed what can be described as a healthy distaste for the ultra rich, which might explain why reviling the Real Housewives and the Kardashian family is as much of a national pastime as watching Mike Trout hit a home run. The financial crisis has taken extravagant wealth out of fashion and created a national conversation about income inequality. Even as Occupy waned, one researcher for Pew Social and Demographic Trends told the New York Times that the phrase had “moved off the business pages into the front page.”
Tellingly, the enduring meme of the 99 percent came to outlive any of the movement’s scrappy encampments. Millennials’ collective disgust for the 1 percent and their shared money woes, whether from student debt or underemployment, has given way to painfully raw media depictions of a certain kind of young adulthood, cultivated against the backdrop of endless war abroad and the dissolution of the middle class.
Networks are now feeling a push to represent a young person’s world where the possibility of making money and attaining traditional forms of success—Manhattan apartments, 2.5 well-educated kids, corner offices—is radically diminished. Like Instagram filters, though, these depictions of post-aught life are hardly monolithic. Broad City posits one way to get by. HBO’s Girls, the product of writer and mumblecore hero Lena Dunham, gives us another.
The titular Girls—Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna—are all recent college graduates living in Brooklyn. Leaving behind their elite institutions (Oberlin and NYU), each struggles to find her footing in the city and build substantive bonds with other people. Although none of the characters on Girls ever seem that broke (managing to go out constantly and keep up miraculously spacious apartments) there’s a lingering unease about money and the ever-present need to maintain financial independence from their parents as they approach their varied quarter-life crises. The women’s journey is one, above all, for meaning: found through romantic relationships, ambitious professional callings and struggles with mental illness.
The 18-34 demographic has moved a long way from Sex and the City. Few long to be a Hannah or a Jessa, or even an Abbi, but the financial crisis has stripped away the notion that having it all—in a traditional sense—is even possible. Even so, Dunham’s characters, unlike Jacobson's and Glazer’s, are giving it a try. Where Girls’ Hannah vies for entry into the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop, trying to follow a path to a successful writing career not unlike Carrie Bradshaw’s, Abbi and Ilana are content to find meaning in one another instead of career expectations that have been rendered unattainable.
The anxiety-ridden women of Girls and Broad City all help us feel through our generational neuroses about jobs, money, the future, and human connections. If they’re excruciatingly uncomfortable at times, it’s only because entertainment fails or succeeds on its ability to resonate with the deepest, darkest corners of its audience’s psyche.
Asked about Girls by a Fusion reporter, the women of Broad City were almost gleeful about the comparison: “It’s an honor to be in the same sentence as Girls and as Lena... it’s also an honor to be in a sentence about being on TV. Like, our show is compared to that other show? Okay!”
Both shows offer unique insights into big-city, thin-wallet life. Where Girls stews in heavy existential crisis, Broad City revels in the hijinks of living in the moment.
A do-it-yourself, riot grrrl cable show
Perhaps Broad City’s no-fucks-given approach to economic scarcity stems from its shoestring beginnings. Jacobson and Glazer created Broad City as a web series after meeting at the New York comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade, or UCB, where they were taking improv classes. The show started out slowly but developed a devoted base of YouTube followers. Things changed with the endorsement from UCB co-founder/mother hen Amy Poehler, and the show got picked up by Comedy Central in 2013. Much to the delight of its small army of fans, it’s been renewed for a third season.
The series’ modest roots give the more polished cable version a do-it-yourself, riot grrrl feel that resonates with its “digital native” audience. Broad City, after all, is the brainchild of its parents, who act in, write and edit each episode from start to finish. The duo's offbeat brand of lady-centric, THC-laced comedy has earned Jacobson and Glazer titles ranging from “id girls” to “unruly women.” Unsurprisingly for those who’ve seen their chemistry onscreen, the two are also best friends.
The women of Girls are a little different. Watching Marnie and Hannah willfully hurt the people who love them most makes us question whether they’re actually good people, and stretches us beyond a love-hate character-audience relationship. If Girls is achingly honest about the travails of self-loathing, Broad City rejects the concept entirely. Both shows offer messy, complicated visions of post-college humanity, where deriving meaning from work is not as easy as it once was; where Jacobson and Glazer thrive is in their endless capacity for unmonetized self-love.
Broad City allows millennials of a specific demographic—and even those outside of it—to laugh at the situation the 1 percent has handed them. Ilana works (more accurately shows up) at a sales startup called “Deals Deals Deals,” while Abbi cleans up pubes at a fancy gym for her kind-hearted but clueless new-age health-nut boss. Neither is thrilled with her current job, but doesn’t spend too much time in crisis mode trying to discern her true calling. Abbi and Ilana blow smoke rings into the widening divide between what’s expected and what’s possible. For those of us not making six, five or even four figures, depositing an "eight f**cking thousand dollar" check that goes to pay four, maybe five months of rent at a "beautiful railroad-style apartment" is an achievement worthy of celebration. The successful dental career of Lincoln (Hannibal Buress), Ilana’s fling, is an anomaly on the show, one Abbi and Ilana take full advantage of with free fillings and surgeries.
The beauty of Broad City is its ability to redefine expectations: We don’t want to hang out with its characters because they live some glamorous lifestyle, but because they make the absolute best of unfortunate, decidedly unglamorous circumstances.
The only amusements they need are each other and the funhouse of a city they both inhabit. Given the relatively small population they represent, it would be difficult to argue that Abbi and Ilana make up the quintessential voice of the post-2008 generation. The Great Recession created an uneasy asterisk to be added onto discussions of millennials, “Generation Me,” or whatever inadequate title you want to assign—an asterisk to describe young people who, dealing mostly with the economic fallout of the crash, have not settled comfortably into adulthood as it was previously defined. In forging a new one for those of us who can identify with it, Broad City might be the funniest coping mechanism we’ve got.