What 'Broad City' gets right about depression
“Broad City” has been back for its fourth season for a little over a month, and the season might be its best yet. Creators and stars Abbi Jacobson (“Portlandia”) and Ilana Glazer (“Rough Night”) know their show’s past well, often winking to moments in previous seasons, but they don’t let their characters remain stagnant.
Abbi was working as an assistant to an ad executive (hilariously played by Wanda Sykes (“Bad Moms”)) before getting fired in a shrooms-related incident. Ilana gets a job in an upscale sushi restaurant, managed by Marcel (Ru Paul, “Ru Paul’s Drag Race”), where she is making the most money she's ever had. Each character also loses some baggage from previous seasons: Ilana reached closure with Lincoln in a bathroom after shitting herself; Abbi left things on a positive note with Trey after training Shania Twain (yet another amazing guest star) and breaking his penis. And even though the show isn’t saying Trump’s name audibly, this season — the first to take place in winter, and under Trump’s administration — doesn’t shy away from the current state of affairs. In one episode, the pair escorts women in and out of a Planned Parenthood, eventually blowing a vape cloud into the face of an angry protester, thus changing his view on the topic (obviously). In another, Ilana complains about the decreasing quality of cell reception and subway service since “becoming a fascist state.”
None of this is especially new for the show as it has leaned into the woke, white-girl stoner sitcom we know it as today, but “Broad City” took its approach to new levels last week, devoting almost an entire episode to Ilana’s struggle with depression. Titled “Abbi’s Mom,” the episode opens with Abbi preparing for a visit from her mother while Ilana struggles to overcome her mounting depression, made worse by Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Ilana is struggling to give Abbi her attention, sitting quiet and distant before turning on her SAD lamp and popping back into her signature boisterous style. She has been steadily lowering her dosage of antidepressants (a goal she set in the second season’s finale) and is relying on the SAD lamp to make it through the winter.
The remainder of the episode plays out while Abbi and her mom (Peri Gilpin, “Fraiser”) dine at Sushi Mambeaux, where Marcel has cancelled the evening’s tips pool and promises to fire the server who earns the least and give all the tips to the server who earns the most. Emphasizing how depression doesn’t care about or stop for life, even when your job is on the line, Ilana spends half of her shift in a storage closet hugging her SAD lamp and the other half struggling to make it through customer interactions.
The show’s approach conveys the experience of crippling depression so well by taking the internal symptoms and placing them in plain view. Through special effects, scenes where Ilana is struggling to do her duties play out the overwhelming feeling of a depressive episode — that feeling of being slightly removed from your present — shown by slight slow-mo and the echoing of her customer’s requests. My therapist uses the metaphor of walking through peanut butter to visualize the struggle of everyday life with depression, but this episode acknowledges that sometimes you aren’t only walking through peanut butter, but sometimes you’re swimming through it, using all of your mental will power to move, breathe and exist.
As her shift progresses, Ilana has to up the intensity of her SAD lamp, lining the closet with tin foil, bringing in the kitchen’s meat lamp and finally switching to a higher wattage bulb. When Abbi swaps the bulb, Ilana slowly rises out of a fetal position, relishing in the lamp’s sweet relief. But as is with most ineffective coping mechanisms, all the time and energy put into it is a waste, as they blow one of the restaurant’s fuses. Band-Aid fixes to depression — or any mental health problem — feel good in the moment but won’t change your situation, as exemplified by Ilana’s lamp.
The episode’s final scenes do the heaviest lifting in skewering stigma around depression and its treatment. After the power outage and a scene caused by Abbi’s mom, Ilana admits her struggles to Marcel. Admitting she feels powerless and just doesn’t care, even going so far as offering up her tips and job. To which, Ru Paul delivers one of the series’s best lines to date: “This depression shit — that’s next level bitchy.” Then he offers to fire one of the other servers because he has rich parents. He finishes with, “I hope you never get better.”
It sounds like it stings on paper, but Ru Paul’s comforting tone and expression says, “I love you with your depression,” “You are worthy with your depression,” because the fact of the matter is, depression isn’t curable in all cases, but it is treatable. Ilana embraces this, telling Abbi she will just increase her medication in the winter. “That’s just shame and stigma,” she says of her wish to be “pure,” on less meds. The episode ends with its strongest, most explicit message about depression: Full health doesn’t require being healthy without medication, but recognizes that those who live with depression can reach their optimal health with regular medication use.
In previous seasons Ilana’s openness about her struggles with depression — casual mentions of her medication or her overwhelming love for therapy — skewers the idea that depression is reserved only for the sad and quiet, but can exist within young, vibrant, confident individuals. Last week’s episode gives a voice to those individuals, accepting and validating their experiences.