This Week on Dear Television
Bringing Up the Man-Baby
While much has been rightly made (by Dear TV alumnus Anne Helen Petersen, among others) of Abbi and Ilana’s “unruliness,” Broad City is also a comedy of limits. A lot of this comes down to its setting: New York is such a claustral, restrictive place to live, a hemmed-in atmosphere Broad City conjures perfectly in scenes like last week’s subway cold open. (Compare, for instance, Girls, which barely ever has a street scene with more than a handful of background extras.) No matter how free and unfuckwithable Abbi and Ilana aspire to be, they always run up against obstacles; otherwise, it wouldn’t be a comedy.
But the obstacles in Broad City are not equally distributed. Ilana does pretty much whatever she wants, and almost always gets away with it; Abbi faces challenges and is usually defeated by them. Both are reincarnating classic comic archetypes, the Smooth Talker and the Born Loser: Ilana is Bugs Bunny, Abbi is Porky Pig; Ilana is Bill Murray and Abbi is Rick Moranis; Ilana is Mae West and Abbi is Buster Keaton. As far as their own one-on-one chemistry, Ilana doesn’t exactly dominate Abbi — she’s no Dean Martin — but she does inspire her to act in free-spirited ways that Abbi, not being Ilana, can’t quite pull off. The catalyst for comedy in Broad City often comes from Ilana being herself, and Abbi trying, and failing, to be Ilana.
“Mochalatta Chills” is one of Broad City’s neatly bifurcated episodes: instead of the sketchy buddy comedy the show is known for, it fits more into a traditional sitcom A-plot/B-plot structure, half Abbi and half Ilana. I’ll address the Abbi plot here (Sarah, maybe you’ll pick up on the Ilana story in your post?), which prominently features John Gemberling as Matthew Bevers, the boyfriend of Abbi’s eternally absent roommate Melody. (This season, we learn that she’s working with Habitat for Humanity in Haiti.)
Bevers has been crashing on Abbi’s sofa for so long, playing video games with schoolkids and using a mechanical claw to retrieve iced coffee drinks from a mini-fridge, that he’s developed a “couch sore.” It’s already well established, in season one, that Abbi is repulsed by Bevers: he is lazy, needy, whiny and filthy. He seems to think he’s coasting on charm, which only makes his charmlessness worse. “I’m sorry,” he says in a sickeningly cute voice after spilling his Mochalatta all over the living room floor. “I guess I don’t know my own strength.” Part of what’s so good about Gemberling’s performance is that it pushes the Apatovian Man-Child archetype popularized by Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Zach Galifianakis and others way past the limits of acceptability. A thirty-something dude who sits on the couch and smokes weed and plays video games is cute and charming; a thirty-something dude who literally never gets off the couch and develops what basically amounts to diaper rash is horrific. He is the Man-Child taken to a grotesque and irredeemable extreme. He is a Man-Baby.
Abbi doesn’t want a baby; it’s not even clear that she wants a boyfriend. A lot of her best plotlines involve her awkwardly trying to remove herself from social situations in which she is grossed out by someone and wants to get away from them. (She’s the Bridget Jones of visceral disgust.) Whereas Ilana seems to be attracted to everyone she meets (she can’t help but make out with two of her unpaid interns), Abbi is more often uncomfortable, insecure, avoidant. Her one moment of unalloyed, Ilana Glazer-ish joy in this episode, the nude dance sequence set to Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory” that takes place after Bevers finally leaves her apartment, is, significantly, also a moment of solitude.
But of course the glory doesn’t last: Bevers joins Soulstice, the gym where Abbi works, and she is enlisted by Trey (the note-perfect Paul W. Downs) to help train him. (Bevers, Trey recognizes, is “the perfect ‘before’ picture.”) “You two boyfriend-girlfriend?” Trey asks. “God, no,” Abbi answers, “he’s my roommate’s boyfriend.” “So you know his body!” Trey enthuses. This is actually sort of true, but it’s exactly what Abbi doesn’t want: she doesn’t want to know Bevers’ body (or, maybe, anybody’s?) in the way that a girlfriend knows a boyfriend’s, or a mother knows a child’s. Yet she’s thrust into the caretaking role nonetheless, not only at the gym but on the second shift as well. “When you’re with him,” Trey instructs her, “I want you to monitor his diet, his sleep, even his stool. I want you to be ALL OVER him.” Bevers, of course, loves this: all he wants from “Abba-dabby,” as he calls her, is undivided attention.
Where Abbi sees an ordeal, Ilana, naturally, sees an opportunity. This is Abbi’s chance to advance professionally, to move up from Cleaner to Trainer. “Grab the bull by the balls, dude!” she instructs, resplendent in her “white power suit.” Which Abbi tries to do, with predictably schlemielish results. This storyline showcases so much of what’s special about Jacobson: the mix of anger and resentment with innocence, the desire to fit in and be liked (her awkward attempts at Trey’s positive jargon — “Today is a ta-chinga!” — are priceless), the total commitment to physical comedy at the expense of personal vanity. Glazer’s is the showier part on Broad City, but for me, Jacobson is the star.
Last week Lili suggested that the “reverse rapism” scene between Abbi and Rogen’s Stacy was riffing on Observe and Report, and I can’t help seeing this week’s episode as an oblique homage to Knocked Up. Here, though, the baby Abbi is stuck with is Bevers himself. What it takes biology to accomplish in Apatow’s film is done in this case by simple social inertia. Bevers is a man-baby, Abbi is a woman; ergo, she’ll take care of him, whether she wants to or not. “Can we go home now?” Bevers asks, after injuring himself on a treadmill and deciding to abandon his workout regimen. “Yeah, we’re going to go back to my apartment…” “Back to our hooooooome,” he coos.
There’s something to be said about how Abbi’s struggle against maternalization parallels Ilana’s paternalist exploitation of her interns in the B plot; but I’ve already run up against the limits of my space here. Over to you, Sarah…
They spelled my name wrong in the credits, and I didn’t get my set visit,
“To us in the future!” As Ilana and Abbi raise their glasses over their expensive “Halliburton” power lunch, they toast a future that’s going to come “any day now.” Like many of Broad City’s episodes, this week’s “Mochalatta Chills” hinges on the question of whether and how these broads will slip out of the aimless hilarity of their youth and into some kind of more purposeful adulthood. The future! It’s not a new topic for them. But somehow this week’s way of phrasing it grabbed me. This “us in the future” they’re toasting: Is it me?
I mean, it’s probably not me. Even though I’m older than them, and I have a job and a mortgage, I’m not really their future. Watching Abbi and Ilana, my emotional response is typically more awed wonder than nostalgia. (If only my twenties had been so aimless and stoned, or so profoundly committed to my lady friends!) But somewhere between the groping, the professional disgust and the birthing pool fantasies, this episode made me feel a little bit…recognized. It made me think about how Broad City is imagining its viewers. Does it think of us as Abbi and Ilana’s peers? Or are we supposed to be the purposeful adults Abbi and Ilana can dimly imagine becoming? And if we are, does that mean we’ve made some progress? We can’t quite tell, and I think that confusion is important. What if the gap between successful adulthood and aimless youth is different than we think?
Evan’s talked about limits in Broad City and how Abbi, particularly, runs up against them. But it’s also true that in “Mochalatta Chills” both women cross a previously solid-seeming boundary and experience some professional success. This success, however, comes with its own concerns. In Ilana’s plotline, economic power skews her unruliness, making us read it differently. And it’s not just her: Broad City puts all of us on the hook, too. Her jokes, very directly work to connect her personal, economic success to broader questions about social progress. Can they—can we—have both at the same time?
Ilana announced in her first-ever lines of this series, way back in episode one, her desire to be a “boss bitch.” But of course, back then, she also was just a “broke Jewess” placing Craigslist ads looking for work. On the surface, things are different now: Now she’s placing ads looking for workers. Hiring three unpaid interns, Ilana becomes an actual boss bitch, and there’s no doubt she’s as thrilled about it as she always imagined being: “It turns out I’m an effective leader!” She revels in being called “Miss Wexler”; she loves sitting at Todd’s desk. Here she is, moving forward, making money! But it turns out that being a boss doesn’t really change what she does; it just changes what her behavior means. As a lowly start-up worker, taking long lunches, talking about herself and flaunting her bra were signs of either gross inadequacy (if you are her coworkers) or admirable insubordination (if you are us). But now that she is a boss, those same qualities are markers of power and prestige. “What a cool boss!” her intern says.
The “Deals, Deals, Deals!” corporate environment has never been one we’ve been encouraged to respect. But Derek’s haplessness has made it seem harmless. With Ilana at the helm, however, it starts to seem a little dangerous. The discomfort last week’s episode created, with its jokes about rape culture, comes back with a vengeance: Here, again, one of our beloved protagonists is gaining some social power, but inhabiting it in a troubling, uneven way. While last week Abbi’s sexual exploits were domestic or personal, here Ilana’s actions have the weight of financial power behind them. They’re a different sort of worrisome.
One of the episode’s sharpest moments was the quick juxtaposition between Abbi getting swatted on the butt by Trey and muttering, unheard, “that’s…inappropriate” and Ilana’s similarly casual possessiveness of her intern’s and coworker’s bodies, which she smooches and (elsewhere) smacks at will. Is Ilana like Trey? Is this where we want to be? As Evan says, part of the pleasure of watching Ilana comes from watching her get away with things. But by giving Ilana some real-world power, it becomes harder to see her self-centeredness as a revolutionary, unruly force. How is the thing we’ve loved watching her do different from unregulated corporate douchery?
The episode’s best line is Ilana’s claim, made while messily devouring a shrimp cocktail, that she has succeeded in hiring “an ethnic smorgasbord” of interns. This is smart on several levels. Comparing workers to food, Broad City aligns itself with a long series of capitalist critiques, particularly around race. The line made me think about how innovations that can seem like progress—diversity hires, in this instance—are easily corrupted by corporate structures that use them to disguise a repetition of old social hierarchies. (Here I’m not saying that diversity hires or affirmative action are in themselves corrupt, but rather saying that the show points out how even these positive ideas don’t always withstand corporate corruption). Last week, Ilana confronted Abbi with her “reverse rapism”; this week it’s Abbi pointing out that Ilana’s “white power suit” and unpaid minority interns might just be straight-up racism.
Ilana’s horrified, but the show doesn’t really let us feel good about her repentance. Immediately firing the interns she’s just hired seems more like selfishness than actual damage control. “I am Thomas Jefferson!” she bellows at her interns. Promising “reparations,” she gives them IOUs, or as she pointedly calls them, “future checks.” (Note that these future checks will not be paid by Future Ilana: she instructs her interns to sent their IOUs to Nicole). The dialogue perfectly collapses Ilana’s personal drama with broader questions about race and progress. I kind of can’t get over how much Ilana really is Thomas Jefferson: She’s all about combining declarations of independence with bad financial sense and racialized sexual exploitation. What interests me here is that we’re not just seeing Ilana (and, by extension, our society) being regressive when she imagines herself as being progressive, a Thomas Jefferson instead of a boss bitch. It’s that she’s stuck weirdly between the past and the future. Or rather, maybe we haven’t figured out how to imagine a future that looks different from the present, or the past.
By the episode’s end, it seems like Abbi and Ilana have settled down from all this progressing. Snuggling in their jammies, they’re like little girls at a laptop-equipped slumber party. But they’re still thinking about the future — at least kind of? For reasons unexplained, they are thinking about childbirth. Abbi, as Evan has spelled out, spends this episode being a reluctant mom (which raises the question, I should say, about how being a boss and being a mom differ as possible women’s futures) but in this scene it’s Ilana who imagines herself in labor. What’s interesting is that here, too, present and future collapse. Ilana can imagine herself giving birth, but can’t imagine that’s she’d be living in a different life, with a different apartment or partner. She can’t really imagine getting anywhere. But maybe, given the episode’s ambivalence, that’s a good thing? If Bevers is the episode’s Man-Baby, here Abbi and Ilana have adopted his pose: slurping Mochalattas, they use his claw to hold their joint, and they use his strings to keep him awake so they don’t have to take the two steps to help him. And what I thought about as I watched them—myself snuggled with my laptop and jammies—is that maybe staying in bed isn’t a bad idea, if you’ve got no clear idea about where you should go.
We got this,