Dear Television: Broad City, Season Two, Episode Seven, 'Citizen Ship'
What Went Wrong?
Sarah: So Jane! Let’s tell our readers what’s happening. Dear Readers: we did not like this episode! I know! It’s so sad. But it...bored us. And maybe also bothered us? So rather than trying to develop individual essays about our mutual irritation, we’re going to talk it through.
Let’s start at the beginning. Jane, I was so hopeful! Here’s why I was hopeful: Abbi begins the episode wearing her blue party dress. I love it when Abbi wears her blue party dress! Good things almost always happen!
Jane: Oh Sarah, I know! I was so excited to see the comeback of that dress (it’s an especially fun joke of the show since it’s purchased with the assumption that Abbi will only wear it once). Also promising: the boat scenario as a set up! Some of my favorite Broad City episodes use delimited spaces as their premise (“Hurricane Wanda,” "The Last Supper," "Wisdom Teeth" in a sense), and this is certainly no less true for "Citizen Ship.” The episode is literally set on a boat.
Sarah: Yes! This episode seemed as though it was trying to do what Phil described last week: put the broads in a simple situation where their zaniness can shine through. And I loved the homage to Lonely Island’s “On A Boat,” and the very true-feeling sense that those characters themselves would be making “On a Boat” references. I was hoping for flippy floppies!
Jane: Totally!!! Except instead of the contentious “plus two” that jumpstarts the Lonely Island song, Abbi manages to bring onto her boat a decisive PLUS THREE.
Sarah: Win for Abbi! But then, instead of Andy Samberg-style magical exaggeration (which is actually interesting; I’d never thought through the Broad City/Lonely Island connection but of course it’s really important! I would like an Abbi/Ilana Dick in a Box remake!), the episode felt like that other kind of Saturday Night Live skit. You know, the kind where there’s a semi-funny concept, but no pizzazz in the execution, and it’s all a little flat and embarrassing and goes on too long. I was literally counting down the minutes until it was over.
Jane: So what went wrong?
Sarah: I noticed the flatness from Abbi’s first real line when she says to Jaime, “Tonight is going to be a night...that you are never, ever going to forget.” Like: that’s it? No clever line? No clever delivery? Why did you lean in and speak so slowly, Abbi, if you had nothing to say? For me, that disappointment was representative of the episode as a whole: all setup, no execution or content.
Jane: I keep puzzling about how the episode actually begins with Jaime faking out the girls—what with pretending to fail his citizenship test and all—and then that leads to their celebration on a boat. A really…really bougie white boat. Appropriate, I guess? For an immigrant who has just officially entered the land of privilege. (I liked the joke about Lincoln’s ancestors early on: “It’s unbelievable that we live in a city where our ancestors passed through Ellis Island!” orates Ilana, leaving Lincoln forced to deliver the awkward reminder “....ummm, mine didn’t.”)
Sarah: Yeah, and Ilana’s apologetic response there — “Right. Right right right right.” — was total great delivery. But I too have been thinking about the fakeout. There are a few fakeouts in the episode, and one of them actually picks up on that very joke in the intro — Lincoln pranks Jaime into thinking that he’s never been on a boat before. Here, the fact that Jaime falls for Lincoln’s prank shows us a kind of latent prejudice. It’s believable to Jaime that Lincoln would have never been on a boat, just like it’s believable to the broads that Jaime would fail his citizenship test. When Lincoln responds, “I’m a well-to-do dentist, of course I’ve been on a boat before!” you can hear this vague irritation that Jaime was so easily fooled — and I’d say (because of this show’s usual sensitivity to race, and because of the way the slave/immigrant joke sets this moment up) his irritation that Jaime would think it reasonable that a black man had never been on a boat, despite his wealth and professional class.
So there’s that kind of insight, I guess? But beyond that, I didn’t find the pranking a very interesting or useful structure.
Jane: I did wonder whether this episode was generally pranking the viewer, but that’s my paranoia seeping in. We can get to the trans* moment later (what was probably the most problematic aspect of “Citizen Ship”), but there were a lot of other scenes that seemed to be highlighting how obviously and just clunkily bad the whole thing was! All the jokes about Wall Street bros and college frat boys? Even Lincoln registers how Ilana generalizes “every guy on this boat” being into “Annas with bananas” (which is not unrelated to this episode’s strange desire to pick at some fairly sensitive subject matter): “"You say that about every white collared professional."
But I agree with you! This episode might have been the first time in my Broad City viewing history where I thought: “Um, maybe I’m not the implied viewer of this show?” And also: “Does this show have an implied viewer?”
Sarah: That is a really great question! I don’t know. On the one hand there were ways I did feel like the implied viewer—such as the basic “on a boat” jokes, and also Bevers’s discussion of “edging,” which I totally learned about (like the show’s writers, I’m sure) on Orange is the New Black. But then it’s weird that I’m getting the jokes Bevers is making! Is Bevers the one watching Orange is the New Black? Are we supposed to be on Team Bevers, culturally? Don’t make fun of me, Broad City!
Jane: Ooooh, such a good point. Though if we are Team Bevers in this case, the show is also kind of aligning Bevers with Larry Bloom, and we all know how that marriage proposal ends…
Sarah: Jane, I really love that connection between Bevers and Larry Bloom. That actually makes me kind of interested in him in a different way! Both characters play this sort of sympathetic yet annoying “normal” foil to women who are outrageous or in outrageous situations. But then if Bevers is the sympathetic one, that paints us, the viewers, in a rather unflattering light!
What else? Did you like the scene when they scam their way onto the boat?
Jane: A really great moment of improv! The way Ilana’s confused face in response to Abbi’s beratement could be read as either “What are you doing?” or “I’m so, so sorry, my mother died two weeks ago.” But also, paranoid me wonders: Was this whole episode just winging it?
I mean, can we talk about the marriage proposal scene? The way Bevers goes from “Abbi’s the man!” to “Abbi is literally transitioning into becoming a man” feels like a point where the show’s diegesis is sliding into reflecting, like, an actual scene from the writer’s room. “What about we just go with this concept of Abbi being a man?” Am I being dumb here, or does the show actually present the moment as maybe sort of funny, and not just utterly uncomfortable? Regardless, the scene doesn’t hold narratively in the context of the episode, and it just doesn’t hold for the show in general.
Sarah: It was really weird, even with the setup of Ilana’s banana joke. I don’t want Broad City to be a show where coming out as trans is just essentially embarrassing or ridiculous. What I love about the show normally is how it embraces a sort of gender-bendiness.
I will say that I did enjoy how Abbi sort of settled into her savior position with the mic, though, after Bevers leaves her stuck up there. Her face in front of that crowd of lame lawyers was amazing; it reminded me of when she was just like “Okay! And now I shall fake my way through this parkour!”
Jane: Oh man, YES. And she totally pulls it off! Also, Abbi is getting so good at handling whatever Bevers throws at her! That’s true character growth. She’s expecting this scene to mark her liberation from Bevers, but he just ends up tugging her back into his antics again. The locked room scene was a nice extension of that as well: taking Bevers’s lead is never a good idea, and even when Abbi is outside of her apartment, she still often finds herself stuck in a cramped space with a pantsless Bevers. Now just imagine willingly committing your life to such a centripetal force.
Sarah: It’s worth pointing out here, too, how much this scene pales in comparison to the similar scene from last week’s episode, when Abbi was stuck in the hole in Central Park. I loved your description of that last week; how she totally made this fairyland bedroom for herself. And although I thought Bever’s joke about “jazz”—“I call it that because it comes out of my horn and you never know where it’s going”—was funny, it was nowhere near the magic of what Abbi can do alone, with sticks and figs and tampons. Here, all she could do was respond to Bevers! Why did Bevers get all the punchlines??! And then, at the end, she ends up agreeing to help Bevers stay in her life! It’s too much.
Jane: What I did like about this episode was how it framed Bevers, via his association with Melanie, to the rest of the bland and generalizable bros on the boat. The pastel plaid and salmon shorts wearing milieu was one in which I had never considered Bevers, but it strangely works! Actually, Bevers looks favorable in such a context. You could be locked in wine cellars with worse people. But all this basically made me wish the episode had spent more time with Jaime and Lincoln, who were incredible together. I was kind of sad when Ilana went to take Lincoln away for a quickie, not least because it keeps trying to categorize him to a booty call, which we all (including Ilana) know he’s not! The whole joke about Lincoln as Ilana’s sex object is getting tired.
Sarah: Well, and the booty call was annoying! Such a clear illustration of how the episode didn’t quite ever get off the ground. The conceit was fine: They want to have sex, and keep bumping into other people having sex in increasingly zany ways. But the sex was totally not zany! I guess seeing Lori, from the boat dock, having a threesome while still clutching Jaime’s balloons was sort of funny, but beyond that the trajectory was really strange: couple having “normal sex” (which is only normal because this sequence establishes it to be so); Lori’s threesome, a single sailor jerking off, and then...two guys and a blowjob? Is there something hilarious about gay blowjobs? I know it’s the same guy who acted so taken aback by Jaime’s kiss earlier, but I still don’t think it’s “funny” to discover that he’s gay.
Jane: That final couple did seem like a kind of punchline! I don't know, Sarah.
Sarah: Jane, we are way past the world in which that was surprising. I mean: Two weeks ago Abbi was pegging!
Jane: It also makes little sense considering how delightedly Lincoln responds to Jaime’s kissing prank.
Sarah: We cannot go back to blowjobs now! Nor is it particularly remarkable or impressive (or funny) that Lincoln and Ilana are nice about it. Though, to be fair, I did like Ilana’s very polite “Enjoy!”
All this to say, though, that I agree with you that the Jaime and Lincoln scenes were, if not a treat, at least a welcome respite. “Shakira is spicy spice!” C’mon now: that’s amazing. And maybe true!
Jane: And they brought me my actual favorite punchline of the episode: Jaime sporting some truly crazed looking American flag contact lenses. They might “burn [Jaime] very badly,” but he’s gonna wear them regardless!
Sarah: I don’t feel like I got the contact lenses! Jane, help me. What did they mean? Is it just...persistance? Is it some complicated metaphor for looking at the world through flag-colored lenses?
Jane: Yes! I think it’s just a funny example of pure ideology critique. Jaime’s perspective is literally being refracted through stars and stripes! And he looks INSANE while doing it! But also, like he’s enjoying himself?!
Sarah: The insanity was impressive, that I will grant! But I think the punchline didn’t work for me—even if we read it as a kind of ideology critique—because the episode failed to set up the joke! Like, in order for it to work, there would have needed to be some sort of smart or subtle or ongoing critique of Americanness. And there just wasn’t that kind of sophistication here. It was just frat guy humor, even as it was making fun of frat guys.
Though: okay, looking at that picture again is pretty persuasive. I cannot lie.
Jane: He looks like a vampire!
Sarah: Oh my god, an American vampire! YES! But seriously: That just makes me sad about all the places this episode could have gone, and didn’t. And there were so many possibilities available to them; the ship metaphor was so rich! It could have been Mutiny on the Bounty, or African Queen! I mean, they could have gotten all Moby-Dick up in there; Ilana would make an amazing Ahab! I guess this goes back to your point about implied audience: They didn’t seem to think their audience had any boat story references to draw on besides Titanic, so although they were on a boat, basically none of the humor had to do with boats. Ilana’s only substantive joke in the “trapped in the closet” scene was about robot marriage civil rights. Not funny, and not relevant.
Jane: Ilana’s aggressive cluelessness was aggressively not funny this episode. No amount of modulations on “rape” and “fire” are going to make that joke work!
Sarah: You are speaking truth, Jane! I was just sort of slack-jawed; it’s another example of a failed punchline. The line is, “Fire! Fire and rape! Rape and fire! FIRE RAPE!” Like, okay: is that clever? And what’s more, it’s not something I actually believe Ilana would say. I totally did not get why Ilana is making naive rape comments but NOT commenting on Bevers stupid “let the man ram it down!” logic.
Jane: This is all just reminding me of how much Bevers screen time there was in general this week. All those “jazz” jokes! I almost feel as though I was trapped in a locked room with Bevers. Can we just blame this episode on a weird case of Stockholm Syndrome? Or maybe it was all that cocktail shrimp?
(I really did appreciate how all the hands grabbing at the shrimp were not those of our protagonists. Lawyers are OBNOXIOUS. Just look at that watch!)
Sarah: Okay, YES! YES! Jane, I actually really think that might be it: that in this episode, coming to America means being locked on a boat with Bevers! That is the America Broad City is painting for us here, if we squint and ignore the bad gender politics and read the episode really, really generously! America is not about being fresh off the boat; it’s about being stuck on the boat! Which, as Ilana would say, if Bevers and I are a couple, “Why did my ancestors even come here???!”