There’s a lot to like about “Broad City,” and much of that appeal has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the Comedy Central series is by women (including executive producer Amy Poehler) and about women.
But some of it does. The show, which wraps up its excellent first season Wednesday night at 10:30, fits squarely in TV’s history of female duos, best friends who are almost unimaginable without each other. Just as Mary and Rhoda, Lucy and Ethel, Laverne and Shirley were two sides of the same flipped coin, so are Abbi and Illana, a pair of endearing screw-ups in their 20s in New York.
But Abbi and Ilana — played by Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer — pull the BFF trope a little farther forward into less conventional TV comedy territory. They’re cult-movie versions of those other famous pairs. Their friendship is demented, freakishly codependent, and at times even frat-boyish, such as when Ilana recently took care of a clogged toilet situation for Abbi out of support and love. Their conversations are crudely sexual; in the finale, they stand gazing through a fence at a men’s basketball game, conjecturing about penis size. They smoke pot together too.
I know, I know, that doesn’t sound like progress. But it has long seemed as though only men have been able to mine the long tradition of bawdy and scatological humor that — yes, I’m pushing it — reaches back to Chaucer. These ladies were raised on “Ren & Stimpy”; they should be able to use that. And it has seemed that, unless they’re glammed up or sophisticated like the ladies on “Sex and the City” or “2 Broke Girls,” women are tacitly expected to avoid sexual subject matter altogether because it’s not considered titillating. So it’s interesting to find a show where ordinary-looking women get to act like the guys on “Workaholics” and embarrass themselves without losing our affection.
“Broad City,” though, has a lot more going for it than this kind of TV historical significance. Jacobson and Glazer come out of the Upright Citizens Brigade improvisational comedy group, and “Broad City” comes out of a web series they began posting in 2009. So the TV show has a sweet lived-in quality. Jacobson and Glazer are in synch, beat for beat, as they stumble through their weird sidewalk adventures. At times, their comfort level together reminds me of Bret and Jemaine on “Flight of the Conchords,” or J.D. and Turk on “Scrubs.” Their intimacy is completely unforced, and it’s very particular and warped. They seem to have their own “Nell” language. I like “Girls,” but the chemistry between the leads in “Broad City” is far more organic.
I also enjoy the way Abbi and Ilana — unlike the women on “Girls” and “2 Broke Girls” — occupy the fringes of both career culture and New York. Abbi is the more motivated of the pair, in terms of a job. Ilana shamelessly sleeps — and drools while she sleeps — at a generic office, and essentially does what she likes as her id dictates. Abbi, on the other hand, cleans toilets at a health club because she aspires to be a trainer. She has an inspirational Oprah tramp stamp. But neither one is driven, unless the prize is tickets for a Li’l Wayne concert, in which case they will drum buckets in Central Park for cash.
And maybe that is as it should be. They are young, they are spirited, they are surviving in the belly of the urban beast; no one is judging them. There is no free-floating sense dogging them that one of these days they’ll need to grow up. Abbi and Ilana are simply on a journey — a very funny, irreverent journey — of bad decisions and lessons unlearned, stumbling down the sidewalk toward tomorrow.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter@MatthewGilbert.