Broad City and the Triumph of the Platonic Rom-Com

The show’s new season asks what its heroines, Abbi and Ilana, are to each other: friends? Partners? More?

Comedy Central

In an early scene of the new season of Broad City, premiering this week on Comedy Central, Ilana, carried away by her love for best friend, finds herself making a suggestion that is as awkward as it is totally appropriate. “Let’s get married!” she tells Abbi.

The two have just had a series of traumatic experiences: Abbi has had a run-in with a runaway porta-potty, and Ilana has gotten stuck, via a magnetized bike chain, to the back of a delivery truck, and they’ve each been totally scared, and ... well, the context doesn’t really matter. What matters is that their near-death experiences, with all their attendant wackiness, filter down to the same thing that every scene in Broad City will come down to, in the end: the intimacy Abbi and Ilana share. And the question of what that intimacy is, definitionally. Best friendship? Definitely, but it’s somehow more than that. Romance? Yes, but it’s somehow less than that. And maybe more, too?

Abbi and Ilana share, basically, what a lot of young women—and young men—share in this age of delayed marriage and emergent adulthood and platonic roommates and geographic peripateticism and economic prosperity and economic uncertainty: a friendship that occupies the psychic space that used to be devoted to spouses and children. While the marriage plot may still, dissolved and distended, drive many of Hollywood’s cultural products, Broad City reflects friendship’s age-old, but also new, reality: The show is suggesting that its heroines are already, effectively, married. To each other.

Abbi and Ilana spend most of their free time together. They are dedicated to each other, wholly. They love each other, passionately—often illogically. (Ilana, playing the part of the Bumbling Husband, gives Abbi many reasons to be upset with her—reasons the patient, nurturing Abbi generally ignores.) They accept each other’s faults, and embrace them. They are soul mates. They are life partners. “We are very upwardly mobile right now,” Ilana informs Abbi in the new season. “Seriously: Very Jay and Bey.”

The women’s partnership, crucially, is not merely a matter of social circumstance; they aren’t simply keeping each other company until their respective dudes carry them along to their Happily Ever After. They are each other’s Happily Ever After. The pair, as Ann Friedman put it, are “more obsessed with each other than they are with men.” They are very probably the loves of each other’s lives.

Which is also to say that Abbi and Ilana are co-stars in a rom-com that is rom-y in every way but the most basic. That they don’t sleep together is, in their world, very much beside the point. The broads of Broad City are straight, for the most part (though “sexuality exists on a continuum!” Ilana points out during the new season). They sleep (or, often, try to sleep) with guys. Ilana has a boyfriend, kinda. Abbi is looking for a boyfriend, kinda. All that is B-plot. The guys (and, occasionally, girls) here fill the traditional rom-comic role of “the best friend,” ranging from the boring-but-supportive to the wacky: They’re around, but that’s pretty much all they are.

Instead, the women’s mental and emotional energies—and those of the show that contains them—are focused on each other. There Abbi is, to help Ilana remove the 12-pound bike chain whose key she has lost and that she’s had belted around her all day. There is Ilana, to soothe Abbi (“Yankee Candle Store, Vanilla Bean; B, B, and B, right when it opens”) after the competitive streak in Abbi streaks a little too hard. (“How DARE you lie to your wife!” Ilana says, when Abbi initially demurs about her participation in Soulstice’s pseudo-Olympics. “I hear your teeth grinding through the phone! You’re at a competitive event, aren’t you?”) There they are, as they always are, to stop everything and help each other out. Their lives revolve around each other. So much so that Ilana’s pseudo-proposal to Abbi after their brushes with tragicomic deaths comes across as not only fitting, but fated.

Which makes Broad City, on the one hand, yet more evidence that we are living, as The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg put it, in “a golden age of female friendship.” Recent culture is rife with encouraging examples of female friends, from the BFF to the sorta-frenemy: Leslie and Ann (and Donna and April) on Parks and Recreation, Meredith and Cristina on Grey’s Anatomy, Alicia and Lucca on The Good Wife, the women of Bridesmaids and Mad Max: Fury Road and Girls and Orange Is the New Black.

But Broad City does more than simply portray—more even than simply celebrate—its central friendship. It is instead taking a cue from a culture in which Tina Fey and Amy Poehler joke (and also totally don’t joke) about their status as “life partners.” In which Amy Schumer talks about her friendship with Jennifer Lawrence—and does it using the normally-reserved-for-romance language of fate. (“I believe people come into each other’s lives when they need them,” she explained to The Hollywood Reporter, “and Jen and I just kind of like clung to each other, like this is happening for a reason.”) In which celebrity best friends function as power couples, and in which Grammys performers sing duets with their “new friends,” and in which #squadgoals has proved, as hashtags go, to be surprisingly enduring.

It’s a culture, too, that is increasingly ambivalent about marriage as its own kind of #squadgoal. Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own—Kate Bolick’s book-length follow-up to her article “All the Single Ladies”—emphasizes the promise of a post-marriage world. Rebecca Traister’s upcoming book (title: All the Single Ladies) promises to do the same. As far as Hollywood goes, even the shows that purport to be the definitive new rom-coms involve narratives that either reject or ironize the marriage plot. Married offers matrimonial realtalk. Togetherness offers the same. You’re the Worst plays up the “o no” in “monogamy.” Master of None questions whether marriage is an “outdated institution.” So transformed have the traditional norms become that New York magazine recently claimed that the old, aspirational standby—marriage and two kids—has become “a most scandalous fantasy.” Matrimonormalism is out; friendship—and all its possibilities—is in.

What that amounts to is a culture that is not only recognizing the primacy of friendship, but trying to carve a space for it. A culture that is trying to turn deep, passionate friendship—best friendship, platonic life partnership of the Fey-Poehler and Broad City vein—into its own kind of category. And its own kind of institution. The subtitle of Spinster may be “Making a Life of One’s Own,” but the book focuses, tellingly, on community: the love and support that women can provide each other outside of marriage—via, yes, deep friendship.

There is a nice cyclicality to all that. In the 16th century, Marilyn Yalom and Theresa Donovan Brown write in their book The Social Sex: A History of Female Friendship, “it was understood that a woman could share the same soul with her best friend, but rarely, if ever, with her husband.” And in 17th-century France and England—a practice carried on into the 19th—women wrote odes to each other, lavished attention on each other, and generally carved out a space for friendship that was independent of their duties to their husbands and children.

While, today, friendship has been at least partially relegated to secondary status—as Tara Parker-Pope pointed out in The New York Times, even sociologists and psychologists tend to downplay its effects in favor of those of romantic love—female friendship is also, Yalom and Donovan Brown argue, on the rise. As Emily Rapp put it a few years ago:

Here’s the truth: Friendships between women are often the deepest and most profound love stories, but they are often discussed as if they are ancillary, “bonus” relationships to the truly important ones. Women’s friendships outlast jobs, parents, husbands, boyfriends, lovers, and sometimes children.

Broad City reflects that. So do a handful of other shows—most of them, tellingly, created by women. Girls, an Atlantic roundtable noted, argues that “friendships are more dramatic than romances.” The pilot for the USA comedy Playing House—a show, Julie Beck wrote, that “understands that many women’s most important relationships are platonic”—ends with a classic “one chases the other on the way to the airport” trope. Those shows are following, as Broad City is, in a long tradition—a path paved by Mary and Rhoda and Laverne and Shirley and Thelma and Louise—but they’re also building on it. They’re normalizing it.

The friendships, here, aren’t competing with romantic relationships. They’re not treated as “ancillary.” Nor are they making, à la Thelma and Louise, subversively feminist statements. Instead: They just are. “Let’s get married!” Ilana says to Abbi, and it’s awkward but also it’s not at all. And that in itself is subversive. Broad City, a show whose plots revolve around weed and booze and sex—the show whose third season intro explores the many creative and disgusting uses of an apartment’s bathroom—has one core theme. It is that love conquers all.

The rom-com is on the one hand an extremely silly genre, full of fluff and goo and thirst. But it is also a genre that, in its roundabout way, is revealing: It pays homage to what a culture most cares about. Rom-coms—heteronormative, matrimonormative, whatever else you want to call them—were triumphant for centuries because they reflected ideas their respective societies held dear: that romance was a primary, and empowering, goal of life. That idea lives on, to be sure, if Nielsen ratings for The Bachelor are any indication—but it has also broadened, and loosened. Friendship, so long relegated to second-class status as a category of relationship, is reclaiming its place—as a social institution, and as a pursuit worthy of human time and attention and love.

The new episodes of Broad City, with all their talk of marriage, suggest that the show will keep asking what Abbi and Ilana are to each other; they also suggest, however, that the definition doesn’t much matter in the end. That the line between the romantic and the platonic, in a culture that celebrates fluidity and flexibility and the phrase “cultural construct,” is a thin one. That if love conquers all, definitions that would try to constrain it must be counted among the vanquished. The root of the word “friendship,” after all, is “pri-.” Which doesn’t mean “secondary” or “pragmatic” or “while you wait for the real thing to come along.” It means, simply, “love.”