If TV is in a Golden Age of anything, it’s comedies that don’t prioritize laughs. Many of the critically lauded half-hours of the past couple of years have eschewed aggressive pursuit of jokes in favor of telling sweeter, borderline dramatic stories—think of Togetherness, Louie, or pretty much any of Netflix’s comedies. Even more traditionally structured sitcoms (like, say, Archer) have made an effort to include some degree of character development.
Many of these shows are great—when pathos and humor are deftly blended, as they are in, say, Transparent and BoJack Horseman, a show can transcend genre boundaries and create something even more durable and affecting. But the result is also sometimes flat, prioritizing stale relationship stories at the expense of … well, comedy. It should be a bad sign, then, that “Burning Bridges,” the eighth episode of Broad City’s third season, is also the first genuinely sad episode of the show. But “Burning Bridges” is by far the best episode of the season, and maybe the most vital episode of the show to date.
“Burning Bridges” is maybe the most plot-heavy episode the show has ever had—so spoilers ahead. Over the course of its 20 minutes, the show’s second-most stable relationship disintegrates when Lincoln tells Ilana that he’s starting to exclusively date another girl, fulfilling his long-standing desire for monogamy. Abbi and Trey prepare to take their own secret relationship to the next level, maybe. Abbi has, in turn, hidden her trysts with Trey from Ilana, creating the first real distance in the too-close friendship that powers the show. When the truth comes out, Abbi manages to momentarily alienate Ilana, then crush Trey by calling him a “guilty pleasure” and a joke.
This would be a lot of drama for an episode of Scandal, let alone Broad City. Lightness is one of the defining qualities of Broad City, a show that presents unabashed stoner archetypes in endless loops of comic shenanigans. The series is often praised for having heroes with “bold imperfections” who seem to steadfastly avoid maturity in the same manner as their dudebro counterparts. But time comes for us all, and the endless repetition of the same comic flaws in characters we have come to genuinely care about can become sad and toxic rather than amusing, as we grow more accustomed to their patterns. (Not for nothing are the best static comedies—It’s Always Sunny, Veep—also deeply mean-spirited and uninterested in even teasing the possibility of change.)
Broad City is great and has been great, but it would be disingenuous to deny that this season has stalled a bit. The series’ running jokes, repeated without tweaks, rely on fond memories or basic recognition to induce laughter. Its best moments have become weirder, less dependent on the standard, borderline predictable rails of chaos—a split-screen tracking several months of Abbi and Ilana’s lives through their bathrooms, POV shots of the rat living in Ilana’s apartment. Broad City has long relied heavily on dreamlike surreality for comedy. And like a stern, well-meaning teacher, “Burning Bridges” jolts the show out of a potentially devastating nap.
It would be easy for Ilana’s breakup with Lincoln to get brushed off just as casually as their relationship has been built up. Instead, it’s one of the first genuinely emotional moments not between Abbi and Ilana on the show thus far—Ilana has taken Lincoln for granted for a long time, and just because her choice of nonmonogamy makes her life fun and exciting, doesn’t mean it also doesn’t come with costs. (Hannibal Buress and Ilana Glazer also do some of their best acting of the series to date here.) When Ilana hooks up with a married man who claims that “cheating is victimless,” Ilana’s rejection feels like a genuine moment of growth, and that’s exciting.
And where Lincoln has been characterized as a good-natured, if slightly sad figure for wanting to tie Ilana down, Trey has been a comic character for the duration of the show. The most we’ve learned about his past is his history as a porn star named Kirk Steele. But being a zany character in the world of Broad City doesn’t make you pathetic; it makes you a person. His plaintive request that Abbi go on a date with him (while they’re going down on each other in the shower) is surprisingly effective. He gets to the restaurant half an hour early. He buys her a corsage based on a throwaway remark about her high school prom. (“It’s funny, but it’s also pretty.”) In this light, Abbi’s blunt dismissal isn’t funny like, say, her rejections of men in the Tinder-rat episode—it’s just cruel.
The pairing of Trey and Abbi has, occasionally, felt a bit forced, but “Burned Bridges” does the best job yet of explaining why they might be a good fit. They both move the cheat days for their diets; they make plans to work together on Trey’s run at American Ninja Warrior; their enthusiasms fit together. Abbi is just as conflicted about starting an actual relationship as the show seems to be—she’s frantic in trying to hide the secret from Ilana and admits to Bevers that she’s really just in denial about her feelings. Trey insists that he isn’t a joke—if it’s a joke, it’s not a very funny one. Instead, it just creates enough tension to justify the relief when Abbi and Ilana, fresh from their first real conflict, wind up hanging out in the bathtub together, trying to think of secrets they’ve been unintentionally keeping from the other person.
It says a lot that this story happens inside an absurdly stale comic conceit—Abbi sprinting between two dinners in the same restaurant, one with Trey and the other with Ilana’s family. The best episodes of Broad City have always felt like fresh takes on the hoariest sitcom setups. Originally, that sense of novelty relied on outrageous subject matter—Abbi pegging her crush, wandering stoned around a Whole Foods—but simply keeping the wheels of situational silliness turning might not have sustained the show for much longer. Broad City can keep being funny, and there’s no reason it can’t continue to improve as a comedy. (Other, older sitcoms have done it.) But it’s nice to see farce that comes from the heart instead of just the bong.