This Week on Dear Television
Notes From Underground
In a lot of our writing on Broad City so far this season, we’ve reached for existing narrative models to help orient us. Lili found extensive parallels between “Wisdom Teeth” and The Wizard of Oz; I put the saga of Bevers the Man-Baby in the context of Judd Apatow movies; and last week, Phil and Sarah found precursors for “Knockoffs” in the work of William James and Oscar Wilde, respectively. I’m not saying that any of us are wrong to make any of these comparisons—or, perish the thought, overthinking it—but it’s interesting that we seem to need them in order to describe what the show is doing.
Jane has pointed out that Broad City “isn’t known for its strong seriality” and this might be part of why we’re so drawn to thinking about it analogically: Since each episode is, to a great extent, its own self-sufficient artifact, we always need to resort to new generic reference points in order to explain it. (We saw something similar early on with Girls, before it lapsed into predictability: This episode is a horror movie, that one’s a Bildungsroman, etc.). But it isn’t exactly a habit the show’s encouraging. Broad City, unusually for a comedy, rarely parodies any narrative genre directly: Unlike, say, Community or Kroll Show, which get a lot of mileage out of perfectly executed pastiches of gangster movies or reality shows, Abbi and Ilana stay away from homage, which tends to point up the unreality of the overarching dramatic scenario.
Are you sensing a self-justification coming on? You caught me. Last night’s episode “Hashtag FOMO” was one of the most bizarre and uncategorizable the show has done yet, but it made more sense to me when I started thinking of it in terms of two movies: Martin Scorsese’s After Hours and Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.
Both are New York-after-dark films which work a similar magic-realist vein, in which anthropological detail about urban nightlife is linked to a narrative engine that runs on dream logic. Both, like “Hashtag FOMO,” take place over the course of a single night and feature passive protagonists who spend a lot of time looking confused and uncomfortable.
All of these stories contain the idea that New York City is full of secret wormholes that lead to invisible subcultures, and that pleasure and power are linked in mysterious ways. They suggest that hedonism might lead to revelation: that one can party one’s way to the real, hidden truth.
The first half of “Hashtag FOMO” is actually fairly conventional, picking up threads from previous episodes (Abbi’s desire to be promoted to trainer, Ilana’s slightly increased investment in her job) and weaving them into a storyline about the Quest for the Perfect Party (or, as Ilana puts it, “the Narnia of Party-as”). The only thing that’s out of the ordinary—and this will be amplified as the episode goes on—is Ilana’s bewilderment. The show begins with her being caught off-guard by Abbi’s new nose-ring (“I just thought you were going to a boring white-people dinner. I didn’t realize you were going to add a whole new element to your image”). Next, she’s thrown off after entering the conference room at Deals Deals Deals, which she had apparently never realized existed.
Things only get more disorienting for Ilana from there. Out of Broad City’s central couple, Abbi is usually the one who’s less clued in (she doesn’t know that the acronym “FOMO” means “fear of missing out,” for instance), but this episode plays with that hipness imbalance by showing us that Abbi has an unexplained connection to an underground bohemian scene that Ilana knows nothing about.
After cycling through a sequence of increasingly awesome parties, a drunken Abbi and Ilana end up at a 1920s-style speakeasy frequented entirely by dapper senior citizens. As soon as she steps (or, really, stumbles) through the door, Abbi transforms into “Val,” a regular denizen of the club who is known and beloved by everyone there.
Suddenly decked out in a black fedora, tuxedo jacket, and pantyhose, she delivers a passable impression of Judy Garland singing “Get Happy” in Summer Stock. She also shoots pool, blows perfect smoke rings, and flirts with a phalanx of admiring elderly men. There’s no plausible explanation given for this; it’s meant to be unaccountable, a kind of magic. Somehow, in a basement in lower Manhattan, it’s still the 1940s. (In addition to Eyes Wide Shut, I was reminded of the ghostly ballroom in The Shining, especially when the bartender jokingly tells Ilana that Val has been showing up “for a hundred years.”) Ilana is dumbfounded: “My FOMO’s through the damn roof.”
But after being reassured by Val/Abbi that she is her “main squeeze” and her “favorite little Jewie this side of St. Louis” (invoking another classic Garland performance), Ilana relaxes into it, maybe even savoring the unique experience of not being the one in control, this time. “Val bar is Narnia!” she exclaims (and I’ll leave it to Lili to work out what this episode owes to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe).
By the next morning, everything is pretty much back to normal: Abbi has no memory of having been Val, throws up on the street from the backseat of a taxicab, and learns that Maria, the new cleaning lady she was mentoring, has been promoted to trainer ahead of her while she’s stuck cleaning up vomit. But the point has been made: Abbi has resources that Ilana doesn’t always recognize. More generally, Ilana doesn’t know everything.
And neither do we, the show’s audience. “Hashtag FOMO” isn’t one of Broad City’s most satisfying or entertaining episodes, but it has a weird fascination, and it opens up the possibilities of the show’s universe in exciting ways. I’m guessing we will never hear about “Val” again; the show seemed like an experiment in Louie-style continuity, in which major events take place that seem to leave no trace on future episodes. That’s fine with me: There are enough TV shows right now feeding the public’s jones for serial accumulation, and Broad City is so confident in its tone and aesthetic that they can afford to take such extravagant risks with narrative form. And just because we won’t be seeing Val again doesn’t mean we’ll soon forget her.
I’m kidding! Bazinga!,
Ilana’s FOMO is contagious. Between her exploits as Val and her intense friendships with the lads of Bed, Bath & Beyond, Abbi’s life without Ilana is rapidly becoming the show I’m most interested in. The broads are great together, but their zaniness is largely Ilana’s. Ilana has long idealized Abbi in ways that seem tender but only half-real, so it’s great to see Abbi’s particular brand of awesome manifest in ways that legitimately blow Ilana’s mind—and which exist independently of her, and outside her purview.
I wouldn’t have guessed that teasing out the gap between Abbi-with-Ilana and Abbi-without-Ilana would make for compelling television. But it does, because Broad City strikes a balance between the broads’ perspectives, a kind of devil’s bargain we barely notice because its bias is so seductive. It’s this: We consistently get more access to Ilana’s bonkers experience of reality. Conversely, we get significantly more access to Abbi’s inner life. Abbi, as we know her, agonizes over the gaps between what she wants and what she feels she can say. Scenes where she babbles into her phone about stained underwear to avoid Jeremy are some of my favorites. Ilana’s psyche, on the other hand, is a lithe Mobius strip with a single side. Ilana can ask her boss for permission to leave early because she wants to go to a party and will him to say yes because she can’t imagine why he’d say no; Abbi still can’t bring herself to tell Trey she wants to be a trainer because she can imagine all the reasons he might refuse. Ilana’s id is on the surface. Abbi’s spurts out marvelously whenever she’s alone—and her insanity is consequently a lot more intense.
It’s a lovely but very particular dynamic, and it’s particularity became clear in this episode because we’re still—even now—seeing Abbi mostly through Ilana’s eyes. Think about it: Abbi, as we know her in Broad City, almost always appears weaker without Ilana. That makes sense if we’re mostly in Ilana’s POV; who doesn’t want to be needed? But what both Val and the Bed Bath & Beyond dancing suggest is that there’s a different Abbi—an Abbi so confident, joyful and full of hidden talents that Ilana’s concept of her, however loving, doesn’t square. Ilana’s FOMO is real and familiar. Who among us hasn’t been surprised by a version of a close friend that we never knew existed? Or wondered how we never saw that aspect of them before?
This is especially common in cases where friendships harden into Catalyst Friend and Follower Friend. We’ve all had it happen: A friendship develops along a faultline that results in one person becoming the designated cool one. She sets the agenda, her slang becomes the lingua franca of the friendship, and she socially engineers the joint experience. It can be a lovely thing, every bit as dynamic and magical as Ilana makes the world she and Abbi share. But it can also sacrifice the quieter magical undercurrents of the Follower Friend’s secret inner world. Ilana’s love is loud, external. Abbi’s lunacy is quiet, clitoral.
The show is mostly a celebration of the broads’ friendship, and this episode explores what the Catalyst Friend misses and that paradigm’s hidden costs. Abbi isn’t plagued by FOMO, but, as Follower Friend, she obligingly follows Ilana in search of “the Narnia of Party-as.” It doesn’t work out particularly well for her. Abbi wanted to stay at Trey’s to ask him for the trainer job. Ilana makes them leave. Abbi thought Trey didn’t believe her about the tapeworm, Ilana stared at her until she agreed he did. It may have been a magical night for Ilana, but for Abbi, it was kinda bleak: she’s hungover, late, and consigned to cleaning up after exercise balls covered in barf. She didn’t ask Trey to be trainer, and she might have missed her chance (although let’s face it, he probably did believe her about the tapeworm). Sadder still: She, like Narnia’s Susan Pevensie, has absolutely no memory of her glory days.
I’m not sure what to make of the Narnia reference, and I agree with Evan that it’s tempting to read too much into it, but here’s a guess: Narnia is the ultimate wormhole. It distorts time and reality and lets adulthood and childhood intersect in crazy ways, and “FOMO” is full of wormholes as well as worms. Take Val: Evan and Jane are right about the show’s resistance to seriality, but this isn’t Val’s first appearance! In the first episode this season, “In Heat,” someone greets Abbi and calls her Val as the girls walk through the subway cars. Val exists! She exists in a world beyond this episode! She exists in a world outside Ilana’s POV, and—most of interesting of all—she very possibly only exists underground. (I’m thrilled, for obvious reasons, by how Evan titled his essay.)
“Hashtag FOMO” time-tunnels to the season two premiere, then, and it also—if I’m right about The Wizard of Oz echoes from two weeks ago—connects to “Wisdom Teeth.” Abbi was a (terrifying) Judy Garland-as-Dorothy in that episode; here she’s the older, wiser, sexier, more damaged Judy Garland of “Get Happy.” (It may or may not be relevant that the first version of Abbi-as-Garland was Ilana’s, and the second, much better one is Abbi’s own.)
There are other wormholes, other worms: Abbi’s fictional tapeworm, Lincoln’s hilarious worm “dance.” The broads’ time travel during their party-hunt—from 2004-era nose-piercing to watching The Apprentice on DVD(!), to dancing the worm, to RENT. (I loved, by the way, that even Ilana was baffled that they didn’t think theyhad to pay rent.) While Trey does his trust exercises, the gals Midnight in Paris their way into a speakeasy full of old, old, old people. In a world increasingly obsessed with nostalgic cool, the coolest party is the oldest party. Val’s party is Narnia, and it apparently never ends.
Val is the antidote to Ilana’s FOMO—and is so present in the present that she speaks in palindromes. “You’ll never know if you never try, and you’ll never try if you never know,” she says at the roof party, as she starts transitioning (her red cup has turned into a giant plastic goblet). “Val about town, town about Val,” she mutters as she’s leading them underground to the speakeasy. Once inside, she’s wisdom itself and a maker of moments: Ilana reaches for phone to text Jaime, but the bartender stops her and tells her she can’t, and, anyway, why would she, when there’s Val to experience? When Ilana says—for the nth time—that her FOMO’s through the roof, Val says, “if you worry about missing out all night, you never bother to actually live.”
“I feel like a different girl,” Abbi says hopefully to the trainer who wants to dish about the lame cleaner who got her nose pierced. “You didn’t recognize me, did you?” Abbi’s so sweetly proud of the different version of herself she’s produced through that piercing. By the end of the episode, she’s right: She is a different girl—a girl who loves diamonds so much that she can’t help but eat them. (How great was that moment?) By morning, though, she’s thrown it all up. The diamond’s gone from her nose (and stomach), the tapeworm’s gone from her anus and Val’s gone underground again. Unlike Evan, though, I suspect she’ll be back. Now that Ilana’s gotten a glimpse of her, maybe Abbi’ll meet her too when she occasionally come up for cigarettes.
This episode is—like all episodes of Broad City—a love story. What Ilana learns this time round is that they can chase parties all night, but there’s no place like Val.
It’s crowned, and it’s gonna get gone,