The Trippy Insights of Broad City’s Instagram Episode

In “Stories,” Abbi and Ilana curate their wacky reality for their friends. The results are oddly moving.

An image from Broad City's 'Stories' episode
Comedy Central

Broad City creators Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer once did nearly an entire episode of their show as a cartoon while their characters, Abbi and Ilana, tripped on mushrooms. This week’s premiere of the Comedy Central staple’s final season has a different format gimmick: Most of it was shot on an iPhone to resemble an Instagram (or Snapchat, or Facebook) Story. But the oddly moving and expectedly deranged saga ended up hinting that technology might be our era’s psychedelic drug of choice, for better and worse.

Not that Abbi and Ilana’s lives aren’t trippy anyway. The raunchy Brooklyn besties inhabit a world in which Kelly Ripa is a monstrous drunk and New York City’s undelivered mail is guarded by an elderly woman named “Garol.” For Abbi’s 30th birthday, the friends embark on a quest that’s not really far-fetched: walking from the “tippity top to the tippity bottom” of Manhattan on one sunny day. Along the way they have exactly the sort of experiences you’d expect of a Broad City episode. Ilana falls down a manhole. Abbi runs into an unstable friend from college who accuses her of pedophilia. Both of their phones end up destroyed. And so on!

For once, though, viewers experience this mayhem as if mediated by the characters to their friends. It’s not technically an Instagram Story we’re watching—for one thing, all the images are horizontal. But the sensibility is the same: reality augmented for greater zaniness. Ilana kisses at the camera, and little cartoon sparks fly from her lips. Emojis stick like Post-it notes to characters and objects. It’s all there: funny captions, pseudo-dramatic super-zoom effects, questions for followers (e.g., “R these the faces of pedos? YES / NO,” as Abbi and Ilana run from mall security).

Ilana and Abbi have a wacky social-media sensibility, of course, but also a recognizable one. When Abbi is captured talking glumly about how she expected to have kids by age 30, the seriousness is cut by Ilana inserting her own raised-eyebrow face into the video. While trapped at the bottom of a sewer, Ilana takes a selfie, adds an R&B background track, and writes, “Fell down a womanhole … still feeling mah’ self.” In a weird way, the verisimilitude of the social-media bedazzling—the fact that the style if not the substance of this Instagram Story might not be out of place in the average user’s feed—pierces the heightened reality of the show. What are Stories for if not to make everyone’s own normal lives look a bit like Broad City?

Another kinda-meta effect that the episode takes advantage of is using the documentary feel of iPhone footage to make it seem like it’s capturing Abbi and Ilana as “real” people. These aren’t characters scripted for a sitcom; they’re buddies on your feed. Or so it seems, thanks to Glazer, Jacobson, and the director Nick Paley deftly assembling a story full of incident that still doesn’t seem over-narrativized. But in that, they did what people already do—or at least the most skillful users do—on their apps. As Paley told The Hollywood Reporter, “The expectation with social media stories is that time is jumping moment to moment, and that is a gift in terms of storytelling, because it lets you get to the most interesting part of a scene.”

That the characters are more “real” in this format allows for a surprising amount of emotional impact. Abbi’s mixed feelings about turning 30 are hinted at throughout the episode, and eventually Ilana walks in on her pouting in the bathroom during brunch. You glimpse Abbi’s sad face just for a second, and then the Story cuts to Ilana’s writing: “Birthday blues … they real y’all.” It’s a shockingly effective moment, and I went a little verklempt. Ilana then tells her followers that she asked Abbi whether she should delete the footage of her in the bathroom, but that Abbi said no. There it is, all the contradictions of social media: truth but curated, and unapologetically so.

The episode picks at other eerie things about today’s technology culture. Again and again, Abbi and Ilana invade the privacy of people on the street and make content out of service workers just doing their jobs. At one point—this is a great gag—Abbi shows off her new credit card, and in the very next post, Ilana yells at her followers for having stolen the identification number. “Cheese,” the nicknamed college classmate of Abbi’s, clearly has resentment from raising four kids while watching Abbi’s zany life unfold. Abbi, meanwhile, has been jealously watching Cheese’s domestic-mom bliss from afar. It’s only in person that they’re able to (eventually) see each other as people.

Overall, though, most of the episode comes off as refreshingly unstressed about social media’s effects. Or, at least, it leans into what makes something like Instagram Stories so addictive and joyful. But when Abbi and Ilana are back home at the end of the adventure, the show seems to render a negative verdict on the technology at hand. The two women realize that they barely remember the day because they were so busy filming it all. The experience, shared with everyone, hardly belonged to them. It’s as if they’ve awoken from a dream, or a drug-induced hallucination. But unlike with people tripping in public, it’s at least been fun for others to watch.