Dear Television: Season Two, Episode Six, 'The Matrix'
Let's Get Small
Last season of Broad City ended with two of the show’s best moments. Recovering from a catastrophic dinner out, the broads cradle each other in a hospital bed. They review their outrageous bucket lists, eat chocolate cake and overhear a man dying. They stop talking for a second to let the corpse get wheeled out, then they get back to the cake. The scene flirts with sadness and danger, but, as ever, it reels back to the magnetic friendship in that bed. Jane, you wrote about that scene that “[t]he situation comedy often traffics in ludicrous and potentially disastrous scenarios in order to get laughs, but in this scene, with Ilana and Abbi lying in a hospital bed, laughter has lapsed into a sweeter form.” This is so right, and it goes even further as the two leave the hospital playing a game about the worst person they’d still want to have sex with. Never has a joke about boning O.J. Simpson been more hilarious and poignant. And this was the note upon which they ended their entire first season. Well-played, broads.
These moments are the reason Broad City feels to me like more than just a zany sketch show. These scenes aren’t narrative connectors;they are a kind of home base for the series. As long as we keep returning to this basic move, to the wildly naturalistic primal scene of Abbi and Ilana alone together shooting the shit, this show has a heartbeat and a poetic purpose. Broad City is a show about this marbled and textured friendship, drugs and not much else, simply because that’s all we need. This is why I thought it wouldn’t be a problem to cover this show with two essays every week, and this is why it’s been so easy this season so far.
But we’re in the doldrums now, I fear. From Abbi’s psychedelic pilgrimage to Gowanus in “Wisdom Teeth” to the subterranean Chinatown purse empire of “Knockoffs” to “Hashtag FOMO”’s dark-timeline version of Abbi, we’ve spent three weeks in the realm of the absurd. I love how much of a throwback sitcom this is, but, like late-Seinfeld, these episodes have been focusing too much on situation and not enough on the people in the situations. Broad City does lunacy well, but I’m starting to get surrealism fatigue.
My favorite episodes—“Hurricane Wanda,” “Destination: Wedding,” even the non-underground parts of “Knockoffs”—tend to be rooted in relatively realistic events that become exaggerated through Abbi and Ilana’s involvement. The hurricane party becomes a scatological murder mystery, a missed train ride to Long Island becomes an urban horror odyssey, a Shiva becomes a celebration of non-normative gender roles, a long wait at a Chinese restaurant becomes a closet drama, a lost car in a parking garage becomes a descent into hell, Mary gets her toe stuck in the faucet and we learn a lot about marriage. Broad City, like its situation comedy forebears, works well with baseline ordinary situations that allow our broads the widest possible latitude for zaniness and improvisation. We want so much to spend time with these women that we will return every week despite the lack of a narrative arc. Leaning too hard on the wacky scenario as a building block mis-recognizes what makes this show so great, so watchable and so moving sometimes.
So this week, I was disappointed to find that we’d finally emerged from our underground lair only to surface at a dog wedding. I’m going to go out on a limb and say I don’t think the dog wedding is funny. It wastes Hannibal Burress, and it wastes Janeane Garofolo—though that “truth about cats and dogs” joke almost redeemed it. Whatever this scene is satirizing, it’s been satirized a million times already. (For a show that has a running gag about Ilana making outdated political references, this feels especially stale. Is it reverse-Santoruming to satirize gay marriage? Or is it doing a post-homophobia swing at the extravagance of gay weddings? Where’s Rupert Everett when you need him?) And all it serves to do is separate our broads for much of the episode. The dog wedding set-piece is a thing Portlandia does, not Broad City, and even that show knows enough to keep Fred and Carrie in the same room. This show turns a regular Bed Bath & Beyond into a bizarro subculture, and has a gym that’s run like a cult, but the key to those satirical portraits is that the institutions remain fundamentally the same as they would be outside the world of the show. Abbi and Ilana just look at them differently. “Destination: Wedding” is one of the best television episodes about a wedding I’ve ever seen, and we don’t even make it to the actual ceremony!
But this week’s episode wasn’t entirely a bummer for me, because sometimes I like to imagine alternate universe versions of television programs, and “The Matrix” gave me a classic. This episode begins, after a strange cold open dream sequence, with Abbi and Ilana sitting on the couch, trying to pick an OnDemand movie, and googling things. It’s funny, it rings true, and it gives them space for cultural critique without being too on the nose or, forgive me, broad about it. More than that, it’s a great moment of that type of intimacy that runs this show. Just Abbi and Ilana making each other laugh. Now, I ask you, why not stay there?
Dear television, I propose that a significantly better version of “The Matrix” consists entirely of Abbi and Ilana in Ilana’s apartment watching OnDemand movies, googling things, and talking. This show’s done bottle episodes before—”Hurricane Wanda,” “The Last Supper,” to some extent—and, more than that, it’s a show that could thrive within that constraint. If the show wants to do an episode that thinks critically about social media obsession—which this one kind of does—why not keep it in focus? Why not show us what it looks like for two women—women we love!—to spend a day on the couch with their laptops open? Not every episode needs to be a crazy scamp around New York City. Not every episode needs to feature a sequence in which Ilana frantically wheels around the city in order to save Abbi. Not every episode needs to leave the apartment to do compelling work or satirize the hipsters of America. A lot of work can be done in a bottle. I have full faith that Abbi Jacobsen and Ilana Glazer know how to write and perform such an episode, and I kind of wish they had.
My only concern about this show is that it sometimes tries to overpower us with clever situations. It’s not because those situations aren’t funny—dog wedding aside, I laughed a lot at the purse Inferno, the nightclub stuff last week was something to behold, and even Abbi in the hole had some great Castaway moments. Rather, it’s that those situations aren’t what makes this show special. In my first essay on this new season, I said I was excited to see that Glazer and Jacobson had apparently given the first season a good once-over and recognized and reinforced the things that made it so good. I still think that’s true, but I’d love to see them build out by working a little smaller. There’s a grand tradition—from Cheech and Chong to Rogen and Franco—of stoners-hanging-out art. Broad City is in that tradition, if not hijacking it outright, and I think the show’s in a strong enough position that it doesn’t need to sell us so hard. I was really excited when this episode began as it did, with Abbi and Ilana choosing between Scarface and Food, Inc. Maybe it would have been boring to stay there, but I bet not. Let Abbi and Ilana relax for a minute. I want to see what happens.
Sometimes it’s the less you know, though, you know?
I understand your ambivalence toward this episode, Phil, and it makes me wonder whether Broad City is really even “Broad City” anymore when Abbi and Ilana are apart. While I would have also happily watched an episode centered around the two of them sitting on the couch watching OnDemand movies (how many times do you think they’ve actually seen Scarface?), their ejection into (and subsequent separation in) the outside world feels like it could be a vitalizing and even necessary move for the show to explore. That’s at least how this episode is narratively framed: Abbi and Ilana split up not by choice, but under dire conditions.
What happens to Broad City when the interruption of its central theme—the extremely intertwined and deeply physical relationship between two female friends—becomes literalized? After a delirious montage of Abbi and Ilana surfing the internet for what seems like an entire night (but which is probably more like half an hour) they both “wake up” to each Skyping the other from opposite ends of a couch. Abbi is appalled: “Dude, how did we forget that we were here together?” Ilana’s McLuhan-esque response shows her total disregard for media specificity: “We were so tapped into the world wide bloodstream, we fell into the literal Matrix.” But like Ilana, I can’t pinpoint the problem as really media or even internet-specific. The way she rattles off various platforms—Gmail, Grindr, Facebook, Facetime, Insta, Grindr, Tumblr, DListed—is surely parodic of your basic technophobe’s screed. Instead, I’m struck by the shared moment over Skype that precipitates their realization that they’re spending so much time in the literal Matrix that they’ve literally lost sight of one another. How did we forget that we were here together?
This calls for some kind of intervention, or, as we sometimes say in Canada, suggestion. “We need to go outside and live like normal people,” declares Abbi, and Ilana—always the Lucille to her Ethel—takes it even one step further. What if they left their phones at home too? They’d be entirely off the grid! And so, naturally, our heroines put on roller skates (“We’ll take in more nature faster!”) and head to their afternoon dog wedding without their phones. A dog wedding WITHOUT THEIR PHONES. It’s like going to a dog wedding without your camera! I mean, literally, that is what they are doing.
But we know what happens when these two get separated from their phones: They become separated from each other. There’s a reason Skype recalls them back to each other on that couch in the first place, after all. Two episodes ago, Ilana confiscates Abbi’s phone while the latter is hopped up on Vicodin, and it results in Abbi running off with Bingo Bronson into the wilderness of the Gowanus Whole Foods (no regrets FYI). But even before then, in season one, Ilana loses Abbi for a hot second at a bar when they’re trying to pick up guys (IRL!) and Abbi accidentally swaps phones with a drunk tourist. Ilana panics when she can’t reach Abbi, and then does what any true friend would: asks her boyfriend to watch for murder victim announcements on the WPIX nightly news. Nothing good can come of both Abbi and Ilana leaving home without their phones on purpose, especially when phones (cellular, Skype, or otherwise) are what ground them to each other.
Exhibit A: While en route to the dog wedding located, somewhat mystically, at the “Dog Wedding Gazebo,” Abbi is suddenly distracted by a group of boys playing soccer. “If I had my phone right now,” muses Abbi, “I would Tinder the fuck out of all those beefcakes.” But Ilana has a better idea: hollering “wanna fuuuk” across the field because “you don’t need Tinder for these dudes.” And besides, our foremothers didn't ping dudes on Tinder because they had highly expressive pheromones and mating calls.
Abbi’s attempt at “wanna fuuuk” is dismal, however, if also somehow totally enchanting. And when she attempts to kick back a runaway soccer ball, she falls over. It won’t be her only accident this episode. Broad City offers a basic contradiction in “The Matrix,” where sitting indoors on the couch is Eden, and rollerskating outdoors in park full of half-naked boys amounts to some perverse and threatening state of fallenness. As Abbi says, “Man, my first impression is always better on the Tinder. I suck without the Internet, dude! It’s like I’m too real for it, y’know?” Maybe Abbi’s right. What if—just what if—there’s no media critique in this episode at all?
When Abbi falls a second time, she quickly rolls past a density of shrubs, into an open field, and then somehow into a dugout ditch. Ilana is right: Why is there a hole in the middle of this fictional park? The geography of the park is, as made fun of by the show, totally incomprehensible.
Nature—as much as we can call a park with a designated Dog Wedding Gazebo nature—makes very little sense here. Both phoneless, Ilana must leave Abbi with her newly sprained ankle in order to seek help. But not before giving her a backpack of provisions: nuts, figs, an endless rope of rainbow clown scarf, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in which the contents are just a vibrator and some weed (the real people’s history of the United States amirite?). “I wish we had our phones so we could FaceTime while I go get help,” Ilana moans before leaving Abbi. And while I can imagine that version of “The Matrix”—in which Ilana and Abbi FaceTime each other over the course of their separation—as consistent with the antics of Broad City, there are reasons we need to spend the rest of this episode with them on independent, if still totally related, trajectories.
The greatest talent of Abbi and Ilana (and Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, for that matter) is that of world making. That’s what the drugs facilitate, that’s what obsessive one-sided crushes often are, and that might account for the sketch comedy-like quality of the show that Phil so rightly observes. At the same time, this constitutive move toward intense world making is what makes Broad City feel like a narratively and characterologically rich show that is always serially world building as well. And when Abbi and Ilana are separated in this episode, we see their genius in full sweep. The reason why the media panic aspect of “The Matrix” feels so intentionally flimsy is because, whether online or off, these two women are undeniably and fundamentally imaginative creatures. Having fallen into a literal hole, Abbi smokes a joint and begins a riff so profound that I have to quote it in full:
I’m down the shore with my family… You’re at the beach, it’s fine—no fuck that, fuck that. I am at dinner with Elijah Wood and people are saying that we’re so cute together. And all we get is dessert. No, fuck that! I am at an extravagant flea market with Mark Ruffalo, yes! All we want are some wooden milk crates to line our office-slash-maybe-nursery one day, but we don’t say that to everybody. No! I am at Turks and Caicos right now with Taye Diggs. There’s no pain when you’re getting your groove back.
Soon, the literal hole becomes a fantasy bedroom:
The Tampon “A” is a nice touch.
Here, Abbi is on the judges panel for an episode American Idol where she’s fighting with the Fig as to whether they should send Spool Stick (literally, a twig that has been placed in a spool) onto Hollywood:
Debating with Fig, also a real person’s name
This all feels hugely real to me. And it does for Abbi too. When Ilana returns from her sojourn through the park to find Abbi just inhabiting the shit out of her hole, she’s a little taken aback: “Dude, I was gone for 25 minutes, half hour tops.”
It felt like a lot longer,