The Small, Radical Choice That Broad City Has Always Made

Its conclusion celebrated what the show has done from the beginning: Insist that friendship can carry the same vitality as romance.

Comedy Central / The Atlantic

This post contains light spoilers through Broad City Season 5.

In the finale of Broad City, the web series turned Comedy Central show celebrating the hijinks of two Millennial New Yorkers, Abbi and Ilana do the thing they’ve never managed to do together, over all the time they’ve lived in the city: They walk over the Brooklyn Bridge. An expensive toilet is involved (they found it abandoned on a street in Lower Manhattan and then chained it to a skateboard and have been rolling the whole Frankensteinian contraption with them as they walk, and … like many things in Broad City, it’s a long story). The path Abbi and Ilana take over the bridge, though, ends up exploring not their show’s brand of (occasionally literal) toilet humor, but rather the bigger thing around which Broad City has revolved: the relationship between the two best friends; the way it might be changing now that Abbi, newly accepted to an artists’ residency in Colorado, is about to leave New York.

“You know, Ilana, me and you, we’re still going to be us, no matter what,” Abbi tells her friend, as they pause to look over the bridge’s railing. “That’s never going to change. Even if we’re in different cities, that’s never going to change.”

“I know,” Ilana replies. “But it is going to change. But this is still going to be the most beautiful, deep, real, cool-and-hot, meaningful, important relationship of my life.”

“Me too,” Abbi says.

“I’ve never felt so cool,” Ilana says, fighting tears.

I’ve never felt so cool.”

“Really,” Ilana says, “not as cool as when I’m with you.”

Abbi and Ilana look out over the East River, suspended, with their reclaimed street toilet, on the iconic bridge, the horizon spreading before them. Abbi takes a Sharpie and writes something on the railing of the wind-tossed landmark. Soon, the show’s roving camera reveals the message she has scrawled: “ABBI + ILANA FOREVER.”

It’s a fantastic scene, and only in part because it takes one of the running themes of Broad City—Abbi and Ilana treating New York’s topography as a playground for their adventures—and blends it with the one of the city’s most familiar icons. The scene also summons another of Broad City’s long-running jokes: the notion that the show that follows the familiar contours of the buddy comedy has also been, all along, a rom-com. The series has been explicit about that: It has repeatedly emphasized Ilana’s attraction to Abbi (Ilana once proposed marriage to her friend); it featured, as the premiere to Season 4, a Sliding Doors–inflected exploration of how the star-crossed friends almost didn’t cross paths at all—the anxieties of love’s accidents.

But the idea has been stressed more subtly, too. The relationship that Abbi and Ilana share is platonic, but characterized still by the woozy warmth most traditionally associated with romantic relationships. Their affection for each other is unconditional. They find each other magical. They are the loves of each other’s lives. This is the stuff of sonnets and love songs, applied to the promises of best-friendship. As Abbi tells Ilana, finding her own kind of poetry, “I didn’t even know my ass was dope until you taught me it was!”

It’s an approach that can read as a rebellion, and that’s because it is. Broad City is in some ways a studiously small show: Its focus, over its five remarkable seasons, has been the wacky adventures and, more often, the wacky misadventures of its two protagonists. Abbi and Ilana have had other friends, and also boyfriends, and also girlfriends, and also parents, and also siblings, and also roommates, and also coworkers. Those relationships have all been secondary, though, to the relationship around which all the others have orbited. The pair’s friendship is total, and totalizing. The most beautiful, deep, real, cool-and-hot, meaningful, important relationship of my life.

That has helped make the show, precisely in the narrow scope of its story line, so very broad. It is a rare thing, after all, to see a friendship between women given such myopic focus, and such deep attention, and such steadfast love. It is far more common, on television, to see such relationships treated, effectively, as plot devices: as vehicles for drama, and/or jealousy, and/or pettiness, and/or pathos. It is far more common to see stories about women’s friendship assumed to be competitive—the brute logic of a zero-sum society applied to individual relationships. It’s a pernicious idea, but a common one: women, even when they’re friends, competing with one another for partners, for professional success, for status. And Broad City has rejected its premise.

As Broad City has been wrapping up its run on Comedy Central, another show has been getting started on Hulu. PEN15 is a coming-of-age comedy that is set at the turn of the 21st century but that offers a distinctly modern twist: It’s the story of two 13-year-olds navigating the indignities of seventh grade, as told by two women, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, who emerged from that fraught time to tell the tale. (Sam Zvibleman is the show’s third creator.) The twist is that the two young teenagers are played by Erskine and Konkle, who are now in their 30s—while their fellow seventh graders are played by actors in their teens—and the disconnect, which could have tired as a sight gag or become fraught in myriad other ways, ends up capturing a truth about how it can feel to be a girl of that age: torn between childhood and adulthood, uncomfortable in a body that is somehow neither and both, feeling generally out of place.

PEN15, too, starts with the friendship between Maya and Anna, and the show’s wry comedy can sometimes adopt notes of horror as that friendship navigates the winding hallways and dark corridors of middle school. Anna begins hanging out with the school’s popular girls; will that threaten the duo’s friendship? She starts dating a guy at school; could that do the same? Maya, new to AIM, gets an online boyfriend; could he somehow take the place of Anna in her life?

Friendship, among 13-year-olds, can be a source of both strength and vulnerability; it is armor made of notably soft stuff. The relationship between Maya and Anna, accordingly, can sometimes seem desperately fragile. PEN15 recognizes that, and weaves the implications of friendship fragility into its story lines; it never, however, gives in to the idea that the threats facing the relationship might be existential. Rather, it insists, just like Broad City does, that this relationship is to be fought for and worked for. It assumes that their friendship is in fact the central one in Maya’s and Anna’s lives—contra the rom-coms and TV shows and love songs of the late ’90s and early 2000s that argue otherwise—and operates from that assumption. “We have a boyfriend!” the girls squeal to each other when their bandmate, Brendan, passes Anna a note asking her to go out with him; the we there, much more than the boyfriend, reveals the show’s ultimate concerns.

This shouldn’t be so revolutionary. On TV, however, it is. “We” on TV, when young women are involved, so often—too often—becomes “they.” Shows, traditionally produced by writers’ rooms dominated by men, have made narrow assumptions about what women’s friendships are, and mean, and can provide. Under that regime, Brenda and Kelly becomes Brenda versus Kelly. Ginger versus Mary Ann. Serena versus Blair. Betty versus Veronica. Jordyn versus Khloé. Real Housewife versus Real Housewife. They can’t unconditionally love each other, the logic goes, because the world demands that they must, on some level, resent each other. The notion of mutuality cedes to the notion of competition.

This is not how many people experience friendship in their own life, and Broad City and PEN15—along with, of course, so many other shows—acknowledge that. Here are characters who experience their friendships as vehicles of respite, and as a kind of romance, and as a kind of love. Here are shows that take the assumptions of the rom-com and apply them to platonic relationships. And here is the versus that once divided women, in many shows, giving way to an and: Issa and Molly. Grace and Frankie. Missy and Jessi. Maya and Anna. Abbi and Ilana. So many more. They are all, as Grey’s Anatomy put it of that other iconic friendship, each other’s person.

The final scene of Broad City takes Abbi and Ilana—who are still in comically constant touch, through text messages and phone calls, despite the new distance between them—and then does something remarkable: It moves the focus away from its two central characters. Ilana walks through Union Square, happily chatting with Abbi, and then goes down into the subway to get on with her day; as she descends, other pairs of friends come up the stairs and into the daylight, two by two, talking, laughing, gossiping, delighting in each other. Their conversations merge as they scatter, and the show’s camera zooms out, the pairings blending into an impressionistic scene of friendship itself—all those soft spaces within life’s many hard ones. It’s a final argument that Broad City, a very specific show about two very specific friends, offers on behalf of its own bigness: Abbi and Ilana, that ultimate scene insists, are unique but not singular. Their relationship is exceptional but not, as it turns out, extraordinary. There are so many other friends out there—so many other ands out there—navigating the world, together.