Dear Television: Broad City, Season Two, Episode Eight, 'Kirk Steele'
This week, Broad City’s resident womankids came into contact with both a childman and a pornchild, and they steal the show. The supporting cast doesn’t often outshine our broads, especially in an episode without either Lincoln or Jaime, but this week’s cameos were uniformly terrific: Oliver! Oliver’s rich and clueless mom! Kirk Steele! The angry art man! The snooty clothes girl!
Let’s start with what should have been a disaster. Oliver is the little kid whose mother—played with saintly affluenza by Amy Ryan—inexplicably hands him off to Ilana. This promises trouble, but it turns out to be a better move than we (or Abbi) thought. Not only won’t Ilana condescend to children, but neither will Broad City, and that’s worth praising. Comedy almost never uses kids well. It tends to turn them into one-note vectors of cuteness, dirtiness or stupidity, which is weird, since anyone who’s ever been a kid or had one knows that they’re perennially surprising grab-bags of funny juxtapositions, taking whatever is thrown at them and doing interesting things with it. The “adultchild” genre sometimes falls apart when it takes the joyous regression too far, when characters stop seeming real or mentally capable. There’s a very fine line between getting the laugh and transforming a character into a caricature (see Evan’s take on Bevers as “manbaby”). It’s a fine line between clever and stupid, as David St. Hubbins reminds us.
What’s refreshing about Broad City’s use of Oliver is that he feels real in a world that normally doesn’t: He’s the first character we’ve seen who reacts to Ilana the way we might—with amusement, delight, maybe a little concern. He has range: polite when he first greets Abbi, sweet when he hugs her and whispers he means it, sly when he manipulates his mom to help a friend. He’s functional. He’s smart. I was surprised to find myself relaxing whenever he was onscreen. Naturally, Ilana feels she needs to fix him, and when she fixates on Oliver’s formality, his miniature impression of adulthood, disaster looms. “If I don’t step in, he could go to Yale,” she says, and proceeds to introduce him to the subway, high-heeled shoes and Abbi. But he goes with it. He even saves the day.
Broad City has a lot of call-and-response—even, a lot of mirrors, broken or otherwise—and the answer to Oliver’s sane, comparatively mature childman is Trey’s alter-ego “Kirk Steele,” perhaps the most eroticized manchild we’ve seen to date. In one sense, the thesis of this episode seems to be that our pornographic imagination is itself regressive and childish. Ilana’s critique of mainstream porn is amazing and highlights the obsession with eroticizing the infantile—“Shut up, little girl! WASH MY FEET!” she says, pretending to be the man. “Don’t tell my dad, okay, cuz I’m BARELY LEGAL!” she squeals, doing an impression of a sexy-baby porn star (with a “crispy belly,” maybe my favorite line from this episode).
Trey’s career as a porn star is just as regressive, so we see him playing with toys: molesting a pool noodle, rubbing himself between beach balls, defiling an inflatable orca in a swimming pool on Christmas day. What Trey sells as “Kirk” is an approach to sex that approximates a four-year-old’s relationship to toy trucks. But it’s also as strangely innocent as Trey’s entire life, the innocence of a child who believes completely in his own games. “I have a kid!” Trey declares earnestly, and when Abbi questions him, he clarifies (with no less certainty) “Probably!” He’s exercised his sexuality—presumably in front of an unbroken mirror—but the only product is imaginary, because of his unbreakable solipsism. He is a child playing house, playing make-believe about a child. He’s also just a mirror held up to a mirror, an infinite regression without a vanishing point.
Everyone in Broad City revels in kiddie logic and kiddie enthusiasm, from Jaime’s obsession with getting Abbi the perfect froyo in “Wisdom Teeth” to Ilana’s celebratory pegging dance, but in this episode the effect expands far beyond the broads’ inner circle; the whole city seems to be in on the make-believe.
The man enraged by Abbi’s admission that maybe shrimp cocktail isn’t actually Ron Howard’s favorite food is a great example: His rage is so disproportionate because it’s not the art he cares about (or Ron Howard), but the desire for the imagined picture to be real. When she carelessly ruins his game, his tantrum has no bounds, and culminates in the form of childish namecalling where logic becomes irrelevant: He says he’s “been there” when Ilana tells him to suck her dick. The same overwhelming impulse is in evidence when the broads don’t actually need the thrift shop clerk to work for commission; as they play out Pretty Woman, the play is the thing.
Kids are disturbing, however, when they turn out to be sexual. When Trey tries to placate Abbi by offering—with unnerving alacrity—to go down on her, it’s disconcerting because he seems so much like a little kid trying not to get in trouble. “They” will fire him if “they” find out. But who are they? It’s never clear to a child. The rules of the adult world are so arbitrary that all you can do is try to play the game, and game the system. He plays his cards without hesitation or fear.
As for Abbi, so often fearful and hesitant, her greatest wish is the simplicity of a kid’s wish. She doesn’t want to be famous, or rich, or even successful: she wants to teach the twelve o’clock kettlebell class. Her art depicts the answer to a question that matters more to kids than to anyone else: What’s your favorite food? She gets high on bagel chips. Even the maintenance closet where she plays “office” has a photo of her as a little kid, reflecting back the picture of herself as a child. And when she and Trey switch sides over-and-over in the maintenance closet to build dramatic stakes, the financial stakes turn out to be Trey’s kid—who doesn’t exist.
How could he? They are kids, albeit kids playing grown-ups. Trey’s party in the “FOMO” episode, with its CLIF and Luna bars, is a kid’s idea of what adulthood means. One of the silliest aspects of Broad City-land is that Ilana has an effortlessly great job while Abbi—by any measure the more responsible party—is stuck in a universe where eighty people have lined up to interview for the post of wristband applicator.
Yet this also fits. Only a child would expect to get through the adult world as easily as Ilana does; only adults know that everything is terrible. Both of them are as old as they expect to be.
Meanwhile, as Oliver tries on high-heeled shoes, examines his tuchus, and considers woman’s pain, Abbi undergoes the uniquely humiliating ordeal of having someone go through and price her clothes. Here again, Oliver saves the day. As Abbi tries to Pretty Woman her way around the world, telling a prospective employer he’ll “rue the day” and blackmailing her current boss, her desires and demands are so incredibly small. She buys back her aunt’s “apothecary bag,” loses two hundred dollars in the bargain, and leaves convinced she’s won. Why not? As children know, the game is no more than the rules you make up for it.
Everyone’s watching porn in here,
Ilana eats an oyster before she masturbates. Of course she does. That oyster—and the way it expresses Ilana’s succulent and stylized relationship to her own pleasure — is one of the perfectly rendered details that make this show so satisfying. After the last two episodes, both of which seemed to have lost their mooring in a bland sea of frat humor and “fire rape!” jokes, "Kirk Steele"’s cold open was a bracing return to hilarious gender-bendy Broad City form. My relief, watching it, was palpable.
For the most part, my relief continued through the episode. I love Lili’s comparison between Oliver and Trey, and agree with her that the juxtaposition helped organize the episode into a crazy world into which our broads could disappear. But for me, the plot overall still felt a little flimsy. The smug B plot in which Ilana babysits Oliver, son of a wealthy New York family, is great because it gives us Oliver—the kid, as Lili says, is fantastic—but although he’s a treat, his plotline is funny but not in a particularly innovative way: Prada and waxing jokes are basically Broad City’s fish, swimming around New York’s self-involved barrel. I didn’t think "Kirk Steele" cohered in the way Broad City at its best can do.
But that said: There were these perfect moments! And they were, mostly, moments about pleasure: Ilana with her oyster, Abbi with her Chex Mix, and both of them with their Pretty Woman-like bags of clothes. Last week, Jane and I pondered how Broad City imagined its implied audience, and that’s a topic these intense strange moments of self-pleasuring returned me to. What does this show finally have to say about getting yourself off? And how does it imagine what gets us, its audience off, comically speaking? I think it’s worth looking at these moments in close detail, so that their richness comes into view.
Let’s return to the cold open. It starts with a series of close-ups: candle, lipstick, earring. Let’s pause over that earring: Latina, it says. What’s the fantasy here? Broad City is smart about race, but sometimes a little (more than a little?) perplexing. Ilana, with her love of 90s hip hop, her liberal pieties and her belief that the whole Carter-Knowles family is in deep with the Illuminati, always seems to be indulging in a fantasy of her own racial positioning. Whiteness, as she seeks to experience it, is grounded in its very special appreciation of minority cultural richness. That’s a little weird! Ilana’s Latina earring (like, too, the brief shot of a taped-up Janet Jackson photo) gives us a shorthand for that fantasy and lets us know that the show is in on the joke.
And this sets us up to celebrate the deliberate way Ilana goes about her seduction of herself. Yoga mat, pillow, Abbi pic, mirror: It’s only now that we see exactly what she’s going for. Beckoning to herself, opening her legs for herself, and smiling with approval and delight, what Ilana wants (besides Abbi!) is to be subject and object at the same time, desired and desiring. It’s a good desire! Last week, "Citizen Ship" wanted sexual blurriness to be a kind of punchline, but here we see on full display the confusion that really tantalizes Broad City’s viewers. I love particularly the how Ilana’s unrequited love for Abbi is both an ongoing emotional thread and not the limit of Ilana’s sexual desire.
So what does Abbi desire? She too has her rituals of pleasure! Consider her Chex Mix brainstorming session. Everything about this scene was perfect to me. Abbi, struck with an emergency and a desperate need for cash, has a plan. Her plan is: SNACKS! Abbi, that is a great plan! Although I don’t remember her discussing it, it makes absolute sense to me that Abbi is a woman (like me) committed to her snacking. Committed enough to make her Chex Mix herself! Or, if not, committed enough to transfer her pre-purchased Chex Mix to a perfect Tupperware container, purchased, no doubt, with a coupon at Bed Bath & Beyond, while doing some perfect Tupperware-section dance. In this small Chex Mix moment, Broad City reveals to us, with incredible economy, a whole rich pageant of Abbi’s daily life: the planning, the shopping, the sorting, the having of things just so, not just the Chex Mix but the sorting of the Chex Mix, the bagel chips piled into their own bowl. Abbi isn’t naked at this moment, but what’s on display still tantalizes the viewer by unveiling a string of insights into what happens when we’re not there.
And what we learn, of course, is that the careful ordering of Abbi’s domestic life is never far from a side of her that seems fantastical to us, but reasonable to her. Her first idea for getting $700 dollars is: “I could sell mushroom chocolates! No! I can’t get back in the game! I just got my record expunged.” More bagel chips, and on we go, with no explanation. This moment works similarly to the “Val” segment from a couple of weeks ago, in that it makes us realize it’s never a good idea to sell Abbi short, despite her occasional bumbling, and also in that it makes us remember why Ilana is so attached to her. (It’s sort of like how in the cold open of Broad City’s pilot, we learn, simultaneously, that she likes to stay home and try new recipes and that she used to steal vans.)
The same lesson repeats as the scene goes on: When the bagel chips don’t immediately work, Abbi crushes them (with a mortar and pestle! More BBB!) and snorts them through a boba tea straw. The particular Abbi-insight delight of this was in its normalcy to her: the boba-straw-bagel-snorting was not a spontaneous move, brought forth by desperation: No! We do not see her wondering what to do in a moment of despair; we instead see her knowing that in urgent moments, boba-snorted bagel chips are the way to go! How many times has she done this, one wonders? How many stolen van problems, how many Val hangovers, has boba-bagel snorting solved?
And if the boba-bagel snorting doesn’t work in the way Abbi expects in this situation, it’s hard (because, as Lili says, the line between belief and reality is so hazy here) not to see it as nevertheless solving the problem of the broken mirror. After all, the episode’s other perfect moment—strutting into Beacon’s closet with total Julia Roberts swagger—is a moment of pure triumph. And what it showed us was not only Abbi winning, it was a chance to see what counts for her as winning.
How many times do you think Abbi has watched Pretty Woman? Do you think Ilana has watched it with her? “Big mistake! Big. Huge!”
Kirk Steele ends with Abbi training, like she’s always wanted to, but to me Abbi dealing with the perfectly bitchy shop girl was the show’s true pinnacle. Partly, it’s because it’s the moment with Abbi and Ilana winning together. These broads are so different, and I’m not sure that Ilana gets all the Pretty Woman jokes. But I am sure that she was willing to follow Abbi into them, and that’s good enough for me. Indeed, this moment made me return to the opening, with Ilana’s photo of Abbi proudly on display in her masturbation altar. It made me realize that although this show loves to string us along with Ilana’s interest in Abbi, it doesn’t do so in the way that other sitcoms often do: this isn’t a Ross and Rachel situation. But it’s also not that we don’t want them to get together: it’s that they do get together, in ways that are unusual but no less satisfying for that. In its perfect moments, it its oystered, Chex-Mixed, shopgirled moments of jouissance, Broad City gives us exactly the connection we want.
What do I do with that? Use it, bitch!