Season finales are usually the time to pull out all the stops, but how do you pull the stops out on a season that’s already made room for breakups, persona swaps, hometown returns, rat infestations, and guest appearances from a major party presidential candidate? If most shows wrap up by going big, Broad City closed out its third season by going home — to the homeland, actually. [Note: Comedy Central and MTV News are both owned by Viacom.]
At this point, we’ve seen the Broad City gals explore their often inappropriate love for just about every creed, color, constitution, and custom they can find, from Ilana’s Yiddish-Mandarin interactions with eBay buyers to Abbi’s awkward attempts to co-opt black slang. And, in a way, this episode is no different. Once again, Ilana and Abbi take a dive into a culture at once familiar and foreign, but this time it’s their own culture up for grabs as the pair wreak havoc on a plane of Jewish Americans taking a sponsored birthright trip to Israel.
Given Ilana’s propensity for over-identifying with vulnerable populations, I was a little surprised there wasn’t more talk in this episode about the Israeli occupation of Palestine. There were a couple jokes about Israeli security, but considering Ilana and Abbi are on a birthright trip to a country that’s currently perpetuating an active occupation, it seemed like a bit of a dodge for the show’s brand of self-aware political comedy to never touch the issue.
But then again, Abbi and Ilana aren’t Israeli, and if the jokes on Broad City usually orient us in the messy world that exists around these two goofs, this time Jacobson and Glazer took a nice crooked look at what happens when you trap Abbi and Ilana inside their own system. And, as it turns out, not much is different. Abbi is just as awkward performing Judaism as she is performing blackness, and Ilana’s fetishization of Judaic traditions is just as huckstery as her approach to people whose traditions are ostensibly different. Instead of explaining the particulars of Rihanna’s Instagram or Chinatown’s purse business, Ilana flaunts her knowledge about gargling baby foreskin and joins the mohel chai club, a running gag throughout the episode. Instead of crumbling due to comparisons with tall, blonde shiksas, Abbi crumbles under the pressure of trying to fit in with people whose first frame of reference isn’t JonBenet Ramsey or a non-religious Jesus.
Abbi assimilates where Ilana appropriates, but even when the environment is supposed to be native to them, neither is able to participate as a natural.
Because the Jews before Israel were a people who existed without a nation, the task of preserving group identity is a historically Jewish dilemma — but it’s a dilemma shared by all products of diaspora. Whatever the terms of their isolation — whether they’re Jewish, black, queer, migrant, or otherwise — how do communities survive when they are denied the insularity of a closed environment? Is it possible to create a plural culture or is blending inevitable?
The issue has only gotten more complicated over time. In generations past you could send your kid to Hebrew school and live in a mostly Jewish neighborhood, but in the age of the Internet, all cultural boundaries are permeable. Social media provides a viral portal into what were once discrete worlds, and so we’re all absorbing from each other, irrespective of origin, irrespective of histories personal or political.
For people my age, or Ilana and Abbi’s, we’re all young enough that this state of constant cultural rotation is our norm. Thanks to our parents, our temples, our churches, our neighborhoods, we are more or less aware of our own origins, but we learn how to perform as a member of our own group even as we absorb what it takes to perform as a member of groups to which we can claim no ownership.
Broad City doesn’t wallow in its politics. It has some of the best physical comedy on TV and it’s tough to think of other comedies with a better long view on their own jokes. If your first glimpse of Ilana’s period pants might not be a laugh, the second time as she climbs over seats might be a giggle, and by the time she’s spilling the beans to Israeli authorities about the weed she’s masked with the pants, it’s an actual howl. But as funny as the writing is, as dexterous as its stars are, what makes Broad City stand out is that through the laughs, the show makes it safe to explore this nascent, postmodern, post-identity, post-Internet reality we’re living in, where your favorite Beyoncé video might feel as life-defining as your bat mitzvah but only one is a part of your cultural history, and the one that belongs to you might not be the one you think you understand.
Broad City takes place in the wreckage left behind by the collapse of group identity, in a world where ignorance and interest provide equally fertile grounds for disaster. It’s chaos. And it’s funny, too.