Kayla Upadhyaya: The bold women of 'Broad City'

By Kayla Upadhyaya, Daily TV/New Media Columnist
Published February 16, 2014

Two of television’s strongest new female characters might not exactly fit the conventional idea of what a “strong female character” should look like. They’re stoners; they’re slackers; they’re fuckups. But Ilana and Abbi of Comedy Central’s new “Broad City” are lighting up the comedy scene and quickly rising to the top of my favorite ladies list.

Ilana and Abbi are the fiery creations of Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson. Real-life Ilana and Abbi are UCB vets who star as their eponymous characters and originally developed and produced “Broad City” as a webseries from 2009 to 2011 before bringing it — with the help of executive producer Amy Poehler — to Comedy Central.

Fictional Ilana and Abbi are two best friends clawing and smoking their way through life in New York City. “Millennials in NYC” isn’t exactly a new TV concept, but “Broad City” shouts boldly from its very first episode that it’s fresh and self-confident. It trashes the realism of HBO’s “Girls” in favor of cartoonish surrealism. In the third episode, Abbi has to travel to a dystopic island on a boat full of twins in order to pick up a package for her neighbor-crush from the UPS warehouse manned by a terrifying old woman named “Garol,” who sits at a folding table shoveling Greek yogurt into/on her face and takes U.S. postal rules very seriously. It’s weird, wacky humor that “Broad City” explodes with right out the gate.

But while their world is somewhat dreamlike, Ilana and Abbi seem very, very real. Glazer and Jacobson harness the comedy with a steadfast sense of self-possession. As early as the pilot, Jacobson whips out two of the best moments of physical comedy I’ve seen all year. She literally slinks away in shame after someone asks her if she’s a mom and later, awkwardly maneuvers around Ilana and her dentist/hookup buddy Lincoln (played by stand-up comedian Hannibal Buress, who steals the show pretty much every week) as they dagger each other on the floor.

And every week, Glazer gives a performance that’s equal parts bizarre and brilliant, saying lines in strange cadence for little reason other than it’s hilarious (I could listen to her rendition of “sa-haand-wich sha-hop” on a loop forever).

And let’s face it, Comedy Central’s original programming is a pretty dick-centric landscape. “Broad City” — along with Amy Schumer’s wonderfully vulgar “Inside Amy Schumer” — is changing the game. “Broad City” gives us stoner chicks who can get dirty — sometimes, literally, as with the most recent episode “The Lockout,” during which Ilana and Abbi become homeless after a series of unfortunate events that includes bug bombs, a creepy locksmith and a very nice immigrant family armed with Mace. During their bout with homelessness, Ilana eats garbage bagels. Garbage! Bagels! It resonated with my friends and me so much that we actually screamed when Lincoln asked her if she was indeed eating garbage bagels.

We see dude characters doing things like this all the time — on “Bored to Death,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Workaholics” — but Ilana and Abbi don’t let their femaleness confine them to expected or accepted roles. They certainly aren’t the first female characters to challenge notions of what women can and can’t do in comedy: “Bridesmaids” was hailed as a glass-ceiling-crunching raunch fest (though I found this claim hyperbolic and largely unfounded; the real comedy gender norm challenger came a year later with Leslye Headland’s “Bachelorette.”) But “Broad City” does give us two strong female characters who aren’t role models and never claim to be — two strong female characters who appear at first to embody the Type A Shy Girl and the Unpredictable Party Girl, but who turn out to be much more complex and plural than that, especially when they’re together.

Whoever said strong female characters had to be stain free? “Strong” here should mean well-written, honest, magnetic. Ilana and Abbi are all three and more, because female characters shouldn’t have to fit neatly into little stock boxes. They should be able to put weed in their vaginas or debate whether they’d rather have Janet Jackson or Michael Buble go down on them. Also: Garbage bagels.