Television

Broad City’s Best Trick Was Letting Its Free-Spirited Characters Get Old

It’s been surprisingly gratifying watching its messy twentysomethings flirt with responsible adulthood.

Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer dressed for a party, in a scene from Broad City.
Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer in Broad City Season 5.
Matthew Peyton/Comedy Central

Broad City’s perpetual summer ended last season with an episode called “Witches,” in which Abbi (Abbi Jacobson) found her first gray hair and Ilana (Ilana Glazer) discovered that Donald Trump and her seasonal depression had conspired to secure an inescapable black cloud over her head. One of the best installments the Comedy Central series has ever produced, “Witches” heralded a new chapter for the best friends, who found themselves nearing 30 and ready to trade some of their carefreeness and spontaneity for a greater sense of authority and purpose. In other words, Abbi and Ilana started getting older. No one flails with more charm and cheer than this twosome, but the show’s recent explorations of aging, political despair, and the unexpected complications within Abbi and Ilana’s friendship have merged into a lovely farewell for this groundbreaking comedy.

When it premiered in 2014, Broad City was notable for its agreeably low stakes. Episodes revolved around picking up a package at a shipping warehouse or sucking at being a dog walker, and Abbi and Ilana treated New York like kids playing conquerors. As Glazer and Jacobson noted, each half-hour took place within a day; for their characters, tomorrow was a foreign concept. That emphasis on good times and awesome experiences offered a different model of feminist possibility, one in which young (white, middle-class) womanhood could be as adventurous, ebullient, and consequence-free as male existence.

But where’s the line between being carefree and being a loser? Abbi can’t see it, and the fear that she may have already crossed it haunts her in Broad City’s current season. Many of us who graduated from college with vague artistic aspirations can probably sympathize, rather painfully, with her delusional hope that working occasionally on one’s craft can turn into a full-time career, as well as with her justified anxiety that her creative self might gradually fade away to nothingness. After watching her peers find success and being dumped for not being enough of an adult by a new love interest (Clea DuVall), Abbi, now 30, applies to an artist’s residency in Colorado, a decision that affirms the lesson of “Witches”: Growing older can mean coming into your power. And while Abbi, three years older, is the more drastic-minded of the two friends, Ilana also finally channels her ambitious side by launching her own business (for phone wigs, as in a matching do for one’s cell) and embarking on a grad program in clinical psychology after struggling with her own mental health since Trump’s inauguration.

Broad City has never been apolitical, but Season 5 has neatly plaited its characters’ newfound dissatisfactions with their 20s lifestyle with subtle social critique. The current season has landed punches on targets as diverse as Bitcoin, WeWork, social media, and the condo-ification of New York—the agglomeration of which explains, indirectly, the mass exodus of Ilana’s brother, boyfriend, roommate, and now best friend. There’s little of the “New York’s over now” hipster elitism that so many farewells to the metropolis invoke; any young people who want to treat it like their playground are welcome to do so. But for a show so obsessed with bodily fluids and excretions, it feels honest to acknowledge that, at a certain point, you can’t view playgrounds as anything but a cesspool of germs and questionable substances.

Abbi and Ilana’s friendship has remained the gooey core of Broad City, its tenderness contrasting deliciously with the show’s waist-deep dives into the grotesque. But their friendship has always felt realer when its darker undertones are allowed to emerge, as when Abbi plays up her most obnoxious qualities when posing as Ilana at a food co-op in Season 3, or when Ilana thinks Abbi’s lying about training Shania Twain in Season 4. Ilana’s unrequited horniness for her bestie, in particular, has proved a signature accomplishment for the series—a candid observation of how platonic love sometimes transmutes into erotic desire, and how friendships can feel restrictive when there’s no established physical custom through which to demonstrate affection. The latter half of the final season fortunately leans hard into exposing how codependence has limited the friends, even while celebrating their bond. “I could do this with you forever,” Abbi tells Ilana, genuinely and heartbreakingly, in the excellent “Sleep No More,” in which the wannabe artist reluctantly breaks the news of her imminent move to Colorado. But to stay unchanged would mean missing out on a lot of other things she wants to do—things she can’t do with even her best friend.

Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson sitting in a New York City subway car, in a scene from Broad City.
Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson in Broad City.
Linda Kallerus/Comedy Central

Seasons 4 and 5 admittedly haven’t been Broad City’s funniest; the show, still one of the wittiest and most inventive on TV, no longer seems to defy gravity. (There’s a reason most comedies peak by Season 3 and rarely retain their freshness thereafter.) But watching Abbi and Ilana grow up has been a moving and surprising treat—and in retrospect, a necessary chapter that made the characters more relatable and fully fleshed-out. It was their itchy youths that made us fall in love with Broad City, but it’s also been a bittersweet delight watching Abbi and Ilana evolve.