“I’m much more mature than when you last saw me,” Ilana Wexler says to a former confidante in the third episode of Broad City’s fourth season. I won’t spoil the context of the scene, but Broad City fans will know to assume the line arrives with a jumbo-molar-sized heap of irony. Suffice it to say, Ilana’s supposed newfound maturity does not save her from a predicament involving cocaine, lingerie, and her shouting, “You owe me a doodoo favor, bitch!”
Broad City’s excellently demented chronicle of two New York City slackers continues a rich TV-comedy tradition of following totally inept young urbanites who viewers, for some reason, hold up as generational symbols. And it, like many such shows before it, has a funny relationship to the notion that its characters might “grow up.” Seinfeld mocked the idea of personal improvement and then punished its antiheroes for their stasis. Girls baffled with tiptoe-forward, somersault-backward character arcs, but it still ended up scooting its gals to some state beyond early-20s tetherlessness. Broad City has smirked at cliches of maturity from the start, and any hints of growth in Abbi and Ilana have been corkscrew, mostly cosmetic—nothing to stop them from getting weird.
Remember, it was in the series premiere that Ilana groaned to Abbi, “You’re losing your edge, and I wasn’t gonna say anything, but you’re not as fun as you used to be.” If Abbi had indeed lost her edge by then, her “not as fun” phase turned out to be a disgusting hoot anyways, involving shellfish binges, and booze cruises, and poop in boots. Season 2 ended with Ilana’s 23rd birthday, which she marked by setting goals for the coming year: “I want to finish a book—reading, not writing—I want to gradually lower my dosage of anti-depressants, and I want to join Ancestry.com. Oh, and see a mangina from behind.” Season 3’s big dramas, about Abbi dating a coworker and Ilana losing her friend with benefits, were mostly overshadowed by the frenetic two-part finale in which their menstruation-related hijinks on a flight to Israel were mistaken for terrorism.
So: Trust that in Season 4, the Broad City duo does not suddenly discover responsibility and sobriety. What instead happens is that the world inflicts some pain upon them, and the show guffaws at their gonzo squirming. Provocatively, a big source of said pain is plenty familiar to the show’s liberal-leaning viewers: the Donald Trump presidency. The 2016 election is as much a bomb here as it is in American Horror Story: Cult—and like with that show, the focus is less on the new political reality itself than on peoples’ emotional reactions to it. Creators/stars Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson have talked about rewriting the season after the defeat of one of their recent guest stars at the national polls: “It is dark as fuck,” Glazer told The Daily Beast. “It is as dark as the world is today.”
That perhaps counts as overpromising—it wasn’t till a second viewing of the three episodes screened for critics that I really saw what Glazer had been talking about. Trump’s influence makes for an explicit plot point, and there are winks at politics throughout (one episode opens with a brilliant little parable about the haves and have-nots). Much of the season takes place in winter, placing the frequently pit-stained ensemble instead in parka-swathed discomfort. But by and large the show is still defined by extended riffs of surreal whimsy and raunch. You finish each episode giggling about, say, later-in-life circumcision or feminist witchcraft—two plot topics—rather than wallowing in any dark emotions, per se.
But pay close attention to Ilana. Abbi has always been the Eeyore of the duo, and she actually finds herself on the ups—romantically, professionally—early on (it will come as no surprise that she’s not exactly nonchalant in her new relationship). Ilana, too, is meeting life milestones, holding down a stable job that’s earning her a ton of tips (it will come as no surprise that she doesn’t respond to the windfall by investigating her 401k options). Yet there’s a new brittleness, a strain, to her extreme silliness. The manic-pixie-yas-kween shtick has started to seem like a façade for some real anxieties.
Maybe it always was one to some extent. The fourth-season premiere offers a heady formal experiment inspired by the 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow romantic comedy Sliding Doors, flashing back to the day Abbi and Ilana met at a New York City subway station to investigate two alternate realities: one in which they did make the train they’d been rushing toward and one in which they didn’t. What transpires are two day-in-the-life stories typical in their absurdity but also subtly poignant in what they depict about friendship. I shouldn’t say much about these flashbacks, but trust that a cruel twist involving burrito bowls complicates the episode’s premise deliciously.
What I can say is that the Ilana and Abbi of 2011 seem a little different than the ones of today, and not only because they’re listening to slightly dated pop and wearing slightly dated clothes. Abbi’s on the lookout for a bestie much in the way that another show’s version of her mousy-millennial archetype might be on the lookout for a boyfriend. Ilana’s yet to embrace the full glory of her kinky hair. That they’ve progressed since then does show that change is possible in Broad City’s universe.
More importantly, though, the glimpse of the past deepens the characters and foreshadows inner struggles to come. The 2011 Ilana’s obliviousness brought her to the brink of a few personal crises, and the day we see her have without Abbi by her side is a total bummer. The revelation isn’t that a new friend cheered her up—it’s that this happy-go-lucky spirit was ever in need of cheering up at all.