Broad City: Reclaiming the American Dream
Broad City, which premiered on Comedy Central on January 22, follows two twenty-something girls (Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson) on their misadventures through New York City. While the show’s trailers depict the girls’ lives as nothing more than humorous and trendy hipsterism and edginess, Abbi and Ilana’s trials are far from shallow. In Ilana’s own words, the show is about “two Jewess’ just trying to make a buck,” and their financial troubles seem to be the central theme of the show from the episodes aired thus far. And the girls aren’t just slackers, either, as both hold jobs. Abbi, the more cautious and level headed of the duo, works at a local gym, stuck as a maintenance worker who dreams of being a trainer. Ilana, the brash one, is employed at a vague internet company with a vaguer goal who does not have the means to even pay its employees.
The first episode revolves around the girls trying to pull enough money together to go see a Li’l Wayne pop-up concert (200 dollars) and the ensuing antics that range from the humorous, depressing, and eventually, disturbing. After realizing her employer cannot pay her salary, Ilana seeks help from Craigslist, where a number of perverts contact her. The two girls eventually wind up in Fred Armisen’s creepy apartment, who stiffs them after they clean his apartment. Broke and discouraged, they retreat into alcohol and bond over the experience. One of the most charming aspects of the show is how the girls rely on each other’s friendship during hard times.
There has been a trend in recent American television to shy away from depicting lower middle class families. From children’s television, to sitcoms, to HBO, we have seen a surge of wealthy upper and middle class families on television and a general lack of characters with economic issues, which is strange considering the dwindling job market and Great Recession. Compare the humbly average Wrigley’s on The Adventures of Pete & Pete to the plethora of contemporary surreal and glitzy Disney and Nickelodeon Hannah Montana-looking programs, where beautiful teenagers seem to have endless Scrooge McDuck piles of gold. Or look at recent episodes of the animated sitcom The Simpsons versus old episodes of The Simpsons. While in the third season, airing in 1992, the Simpsons family struggles to pay for their dog’s, Santa’s Little Helper, surgery to save his life in the heartfelt “Dog of Death.” Whereas in the The Simpsons now, in its twenty-fifth season, has a plot revolving around Homer spying on Marge with high-tech glasses. Again, what was once a realistic portrayal of the American middle class devolves into a semi-surreal cartoon without morality and responsibility of the artist.
Modern Family, a recent comedy series which has met universal critical acclaim, seeks to break new grounds by tackling controversial issues such as gay marriage, gay adoption, racism, and agism. The show features a large, varied cast, including a dysfunctional “nuclear” family, a married gay couple with an adopted daughter, and an older gentleman who has recently married a young Colombian woman, and every week, chaos and hijinks ensue. The cast is superb, with most episodes tightly written, but for depicting the average, modern family, the Dunphys, the Pritchett-Delgados, and the Tucker-Pritchetts appear to be incredibly wealthy, each family boasting a luxuriously large and well-furnished LA home.
This is not to say that the show has somehow lost its way in its depiction of the American family (it’s actually pretty good at this), but long gone are the days of the rough and real sets of a show like Roseanne, which aired from 1988 to 1997. Roseanne, a sitcom centered around comedian Roseanne Barr, the matriarchal figure of the Connor family, follows an American working-class family struggling to get by in a fictional Illinois suburb. The show is notable for its portrayal of a “blue-collar” family with both parents working outside the home and tackling several controversial issues, one of the big ones being poverty. Roseanne’s children struggle with the notion of not being able to afford going to college, father Dan can barely keep a job for the first few seasons, and one of the most striking moments in the show’s history is the last episode of the first season, “Let’s Call It Quits,” where Roseanne walks out of the factory she works at due to the new supervisor’s unrealistic quotas. The second season revolves around Roseanne searching for a new stable income, including fast food worker and phone solicitor.
In many ways, Roseanne depicts the American family as it truly is in a way that Modern Family does not. For several of the early seasons, Roseanne must settle instead of following her dream of becoming a writer. During the final season, the Connor’s win the lottery and become millionaires, yet this only upsets the balance of their family, dispelling the notion of the “American Dream,” the national ethos of upward social mobility.
One of the key components to the Connor’s economic situation is the status of their home and one of the events that significantly affects this is when Dan takes a second mortgage on their house to pay for a motorcycle shop he wants to start (which eventually he must give up). Home ownership has always been a status symbol in American culture, and it often distinguishes the middle classes from the poor. The Connor house is a symbol of the strength and togetherness of Roseanne’s family, and the constant economic dangers it faces mirror the family’s own poverty.
Moving back to Broad City, the focus of the article, when one reflects on Ilana and Abbi’s economic situation, it would be impossible to imagine either one owning a house. They can barely afford a pair of concert tickets. There is no room in either one of their jobs for promotion, thus they are stuck, forever two broke girls (notable is the sitcom 2 Broke Girls, which has a similar premise, but lack of character depth and lack of reality altogether forces the show into unaffecting, inane sitcom territory). Ilana and Abbi will continue to live in their small apartments into the unforeseeable future.
On one episode of Broad City, Abbi, looking to better herself, challenges herself to buy her own marijuana for once (which seems goofy, but stay with it). She calls some old classmates (indicating that she did in fact go to college) and speaks to a woman on the phone known as “Cheese.” The audience sees Cheese on the other line, well-dressed, in a very well-furnished kitchen, holding a child while another screams in the background. Cheese judges Abbi on the fact that she still smokes marijuana, which prompts Abbi to claim it was a prank call and hangs up. Cheese, who obviously was a party lover in college, has now grown up.
Her stretched ears with the plugs taken out are a symbol of her teenage rebellion and clash with her surroundings, seeming to make a statement about growing up and the harebrained futility of teenage rebellion, but then we see her take prescription medicine and drink a cocktail before the camera cuts. She is no different than Abbi trying to score pot, except she does not even realize how unstable her life is. She has a large, nice home, and presumably a wealthy husband (Cheese is home watching the kids during the day), seemingly living that American Dream. And yet, just like Gatsby, just like the characters of Edward Albee, Cheese is a satire of the dream, naive and blinded.
An obvious comparison can be made between Broad City and the HBO series Girls, which also features young women trying to make it in New York City. Girls is set up to be a realistic comedy-drama that pans out sort of like a soap opera, but its tone sticks to the real world as much as possible. Lena Dunhamn’s, the show’s creator, character, Hannah, is an aspiring writer living in Brooklyn whose parents recently cut her off financially. Marnie, who met Hannah at Oberlin, is an art gallery assistant until season two, and is well put together to an archetypal T. There’s also the bohemian Jessa, who is somehow a “world traveller.” These girls’ lives are filled with hardships, some, as mentioned, relating to their career and economic welfare. Yet, each girl comes from a clearly upper class background, and despite their problems, each girl makes it seem incredibly simple to move to the City and make a living without doing much and survive easily.
In comparison, by the end of episode one of Broad City, the girls are drinking liquor in a gutter with a homeless person. For all its bombastic, Comedy Central sitcom qualities, Broad City is very clear (without being on the nose) about where it and its characters stand.
In the post-post modern age of cynicism and the internet, post-The Cosby Show, most people know to scoff at any notion of the so-called American Dream. It’s something of a joke, something to diffuse in high school lit class. But the question should be raised: if the American Dream is not about social mobility and owning a home, than what is it that drives Americans, if anything at all?
For Ilana and Abbi, who obviously want money but can’t seem to get it, well, they just want to hang out, smoke weed, watch Netflix, and be content without getting screwed over by the system. And while they may not be seeming to aim very high, there’s something about Ilana and Abbi that is reminiscent of Roseanne and Jackie from Roseanne, where characters stick with each other and friendship and family is essential through getting tough financial times. Broad City is not a manufactured program, but one from the perspectives of two very real people, and, weed jokes aside, is a very serious and telling portrayal of the young American.
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