Dear Television: Broad City, Season Two, Episode Nine, 'Coat Check'
The Two Ilanas
Broad City has always been interested in duality—what show built around a comedy duo isn’t?—but this season especially we’re awash in alter egos (Val, Kirk Steele) and doppelgängers. Writing about “Knock-Offs,” which featured Susie Essman as Ilana’s mother, Sarah noted that seeing their family resemblance proved that “Ilana isn’t actually the sui generis unicorn she has always seemed to be” and suggested that “we should pause over the significance of a world with multiple Ilanas. While it’s thrilling to discover that there are more of her!!, is it a little bit diminishing, too? Is she reduced when the show plays her not as a singularity, but as a product of a particular place and culture—almost a type?”
“Coat Check” picks up this cue with the introduction of Adele, played by Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat, ostensibly a dead ringer for Ilana, and also “the hottest girl [she has] ever seen.”
(To be honest, Shawkat and Glazer don’t really look that much alike. Her casting is likely an in-joke: when they first met at an improv class, Abbi reportedly thought Ilana was Alia Shawkat.) Ilana first spots her gliding through a Gramercy Park cocktail party and immediately becomes obsessed; within minutes, they’re making out in public and sharing a cannoli Lady and the Tramp-style.
Later, on the High Line, Ilana tells Abbi that she had “her first simultaneous orgasm last night—and Adele and I only kissed.” This is the first time we’ve seen her so smitten with another person other than Abbi—her relationship with Lincoln, in particular, has always been casual, at least from her perspective. It’s also the first time we’ve seen her with a woman, though there have been offhand references in past episodes which suggest bisexuality (she apparently made out with her female intern in “Mochalatta Chills,” for instance). And then, of course, there’s her at times extra-platonic passion for Abbi. (On the High Line, gushing about Adele, Ilana is quick to reassure Abbi: “I just want you to know, it’s mostly sexual. She’s not replacing you.” “I wasn’t worried,” Abbi answers, sounding a little worried.)
But while, under other circumstances, Ilana’s falling in love could be seen as a moment of personal growth, this episode frames it as a kind of narcissistic regression. “I don’t know what it is,” she muses to Abbi. “I do,” Abbi replies.
It seems important that Ilana is unaware of her resemblance to Adele at first; it falls to Abbi to tell Ilana that Adele “looks exactly like [her],” an observation that takes her totally by surprise. Once she’s seen it she can’t unsee it: Later, she is creeped out by the fact that she and Adele have the same bra size (28 Double H); she briefly assumes they have the same tattoo (“No, that’s your arm”). Last week, Sarah presciently described Ilana’s pre-masturbatory “seduction of herself”: “Beckoning to herself, opening her legs for herself, and smiling with approval and delight, what Ilana wants … is to be subject and object at the same time, desired and desiring.” Here, that desire is fulfilled: She even has a momentary hallucination that she’s going down on herself.
Yet when she gets what we (and she) thought she wanted, she’s horrified by it: It’s “too intense,” as she says a moment later when Adele touches her G-spot. Whereas, for Adele, their mutual resemblance is part of the attraction—“That’s what’s so hot about it, it’s like hooking up with yourself—Ilana can’t cope with this sameness. “I have sex with people different from me, you know?” she insists. “Different colors, different shapes, different sizes. People who are hotter, uglier; more smart; not more smart; innies; outies. I don’t know, a Catholic person!”
So, what is Broad City doing here? Is it trying to diminish Ilana’s specialness still further, to signal to us that she’s not as unique as she thinks she is? (Doppelgängers frequently function in this deflationary way: when they’re not sinister evil twins, they’re reminders that there are only so many human types, and that pride in idiosyncrasy is vanity; I’m reminded of the “Bizarro” episode of Seinfeld.) Is it setting out to mock her fetishization of difference (and if so, what does that say about her relationship with Lincoln)? Or is it dramatizing some kind of moment of personal growth after all (Ilana “getting over herself,” so to speak)?
As for Abbi, she spends much of “Coat Check” partying with Kelly Ripa, who’s more role model than doppelgänger (though they do share a passion for Bed Bath & Beyond). Ripa’s appearance here felt to me like a variation on Wayne Brady’s historic turn on Chappelle Show—a celebrity known for niceness playing against type, in this case by smoking acid-laced blunts, hiring prostitutes and jettisoning gift baskets—but it didn’t go quite far enough. And neither, really, did the Ilana plot, which dissolves the psychosexual potential generated around the Ilana/Adele relationship with a somewhat lame punchline (Adele says she doesn’t smoke pot; cut to Ilana slamming the door in her face). Both plots seemed over-reliant on stunt casting at the expense of comic chemistry, as if Shawkat and Ripa had both declared that they were fans of the show and the writers felt obliged to shoehorn them in somehow.
In this, the penultimate episode of the second season, Broad City is still experimenting with form, still growing its world, still trying to surprise us. That’s all to the good, and there’s a lot to enjoy in “Coat Check,” but sometimes episodes like this can seem like the show is deliberately avoiding stories based around the show’s core relationship. A few weeks ago Jane identified the show’s central theme as “the extremely intertwined and deeply physical relationship between two female friends,” and wondered “whether Broad City is really even Broad City anymore when Abbi and Ilana are apart.” But this season we’ve seen them apart more often than not, and often finding (temporary) substitutes for each other: Jeremy, Lincoln, Bingo Bronson, Adele, Kelly Ripa. These episodes invariably end, as “Coat Check” does, with Abbi and Ilana back together, often in bed, in a kind of comedy of recoupling. But the show doesn’t seem to want to explore that space, which is kind of a shame: After all, we’re a lot more invested in how Abbi and Ilana feel about each other than we are in how either of them feel about other people.
We should still stay in touch for organ donation or jury duty,