The first episode of Broad City’s third season, premiering Wednesday night on Comedy Central, finds its hapless protagonists on a modest mission: Abbi and Ilana have plans to go to a friend’s art show. Of course, this being Broad City, by the end of the show’s 22 minutes, Ilana will have stuck her whole arm down a sewer grate, Abbi will have been forklifted inside a porta-potty, they’ll both be responsible for ruining their friend’s elaborately dumb feather painting, and Ilana’s magnetic bike chain will get stuck on a giant, hanging art-scrotum. Even the best-laid plans go awry, and Abbi and Ilana, as written and portrayed by series creators Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, are never especially well laid in the first place. These are people who can barely roll out of bed in the morning.
Abbi and Ilana are persistently incompetent and perpetually late. They crash every system dumb enough to grant them entry. Their natural state is chaos, and their natural effect is disaster. The new season finds Abbi and Ilana failing in business, in society, and in love — same as ever, inept as ever. In just the first three episodes, Ilana manages to tank Deals Deals Deals with a video containing bestiality, Abbi tanks a Solstice team-building event with her uncontrollable competitiveness, and Abbi’s attempts to impersonate Ilana at a vegan co-op crash and burn her scheme to date the crunchy Phish fan she’s got her eye on.
But if at first Abbi and Ilana don’t succeed, Broad City isn’t about to make them try, try again. Their many failures aren’t categorized as misadventures on the way to eventual and desirable success. Instead, on Broad City failure is an adventure, pure and simple — not just the means, but the end itself.
Failure has been a part of comedy since man discovered carelessly discarded banana peel, but Broad City changes the way our amusement is situated. Usually we’d laugh at the idiot who slips on something so obvious as that peel, comfortable in our superior survival instincts and powers of observation. But the genius of Broad City is that Abbi and Ilana’s peel would be part of a corporate initiative for eco-friendly composting, a memo Ilana and Abbi would have received if only their emails were set to a more investor-friendly domain than MindMyVagina.com. What’s funny isn’t that Abbi and Ilana fail, it’s that the system around them dooms them to either failure or conformity, and they just keep on not conforming.
If anything, the only real danger on Broad City is that one day Abbi and Ilana will stop failing and start to succeed. After all, just look at the people on Broad City who are successes: Abby’s uptight coworkers Nicolette and Derek are professionally devoted to meaninglessness in their work at Deals, Deals, Deals, and their misery is matched only by the stupidity of Abby’s coworkers, douchey Troy and Gemma, who are physically impeccable but emotionally and intellectually clueless.
Broad City sets up scenarios in which success is merely an ability to subsume individuality into the manageable and inoffensive containers that suit civic and capitalistic order. And really, when success is just another term for corporate compliance, why shouldn’t failure be desirable? Lol, who’s to say you can’t wear a hoodie made for dogs? Lol, what kind of asshole plans a day of team sports but doesn’t want anyone to be competitive? Lol, why would a vegetable co-op have rules about who contributes labor, and why wouldn’t a space like that be associated with a corporation? If this essay were written by Ilana [Wexler, not Glazer], this would probably be the moment she’d make a misguided and over-the-top reference to “the man” or “the system,” providing the audience with a chance to critique the characters for their ultimately selfish outlook in the face of white privilege and first-world problems. But underlying Broad City’s somewhat sheepish self-awareness is a real sense of righteous indignation. Fuck, man … the system is rigged. Fuck the system.
Broad City premiered in 2014, just as the wave of millennial TV was rising with shows like Girls, but by now it has started to crest, and programming aimed at the Internet generation is omnipresent. But the risk of trying to make TV by young people and for young people reveals itself when the healthy creative hunger of artists is co-opted by network thirst; young artists can be discouraged from taking risks as they are reminded there’s no guarantee that a chance at a series will return if the first opportunity falls through.
It doesn’t help that whether a show is promising, like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, or downright sublime, like Inside Amy Schumer, millennial TV is cluelessly sold by networks as a barrage of artless references to memes, parties, apps, weed, and sex — not necessarily in that order. If it stars women as Broad City does, there’s a kind of Disney World perkiness, smiles just a tick too wide, femininity emphasized either by its absence or its abundance. Whether it’s Jane the Virgin or Not Safe With Nikki Glaser or Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, the network pitch on women in comedy can’t seem to get past the woman part to make it to the comedy, and the ads for the new season of Broad City took the same tone, cherry-picking the gynecologist jokes and “yas queen”s and leaving out the connective tissue that makes those references feel organic to these characters, and to this show specifically.
Even so, I felt a kind of nervous anticipation in starting the third season of Broad City that I usually associate with new Beyoncé albums and public appearances by beloved septuagenarians: Can our girls pull it out again after all this time? Failure being inevitable in any system (and healthy in a perfect one), is this the moment when the artists’ intentions get buried under the strain of creating art within an imperfect industry?
When it comes to creating the space for their characters to fuck up, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer are gods of infinite benevolence, but the real world isn’t always so generous, especially when it comes to the artistic ambitions of young women. It’s not just mo’ money, mo’ problems that faced this season of Broad City, but more attention, more press, and more expectations. Would this be the moment the machine stripped Abbi and Ilana of their license to fail?
But it turns out whether they’re working for their characters or for their audience, Jacobson and Glazer are in the improbable business of rewarding optimism. Hand to heart, bike lock to ball sack, the first three installments of this third season are perfect Broad City episodes. But even if they weren’t — and maybe especially if they weren’t — Jacobson and Glazer would still deserve a hats-off round of applause for their commitment to comedy without safety nets and porta-potties without floor bolts. Cherish these ladies. They make anything seem possible.