It’s nothing new in Hollywood for Judaism to be the object of comedy, often using bar mitzvahs or men wearing payot (side curls) as demeaning punchlines. But in “Broad City,” the popular sitcom on Comedy Central, Judaism was finally not the punchline, but the substance of Season Four’s debut episode.
The premiere episode of the season, which aired last Tuesday, shows viewers how the two main characters, Abbi Abrams (Abbi Jacobson) and Ilana Wexler (Ilana Glazer), meet. The episode switches back and forth between two different trajectories. When Abbi’s MetroCard does not work, Ilana uses hers to swipe Abbi through, and the two get on the subway together. The episode also presents an alternate reality where the two do not make the subway. In the first version, where they do make their ride, they go about their days separately, but then run into each other and become friends at the end of the episode. This way, the viewer sees what Abbi and Ilana’s lives were like without each other—it’s pretty gloomy.
Longtime viewers of “Broad City” know the protagonists’ friendship well. Abbi is a pushover while Ilana is pushy, Abbi is an aspiring artist working her way up from janitor to trainer at a trendy NYC gym, while Ilana hangs by a thread at her sales job. Ilana is a hedonist who can’t do monogamy, while Abbi is single for most of the show but copes with her chronic loneliness with frequent visits to Bed Bath and Beyond (their 20 percent off coupons never expire). The show has qualities of “Seinfeld,” except, of course, it takes place in the 21st century and has a female-driven premise. Each 20-minute episode follows the comedic antics of Ilana and Abbi, whether it’s Ilana’s grandmother’s shiva, or one of Abbi’s art shows.
In this first episode of Season Four, Ilana is living in an NYU suite with three WASP-y roommates, all of whom she calls Madison. She walks in on the Madisons having a suite meeting (suite-ing) without her, since the meeting is about their mutual disdain for Ilana. The three have naturally thin, pin-straight hair adorned in neutral-colored headbands, wear high-cut blouses and speak in a condescendingly polite tone. This depiction parallels the more common caricaturing of Jews — bankers and lawyers named Chaim Goldberg, bar bitzvah boys called Shmuli or doctors with big noses and nasal voices.
Among the suitemates’ many complaints about Ilana, one is prefaced with “We know this one is just mean,” but continue their ridicule: “When your hair is curly, it looks like pubes.” Ilana snaps back at the girls, but in the same breath surrenders: “But I’ll go over it with the iron again.” She stomps off in defeat as the three other girls look elated at one another and exclaim, “good job.”
This scene is filmed in a reverse shot, showing the juxtaposition between the three roommates and Ilana. While the hair remark is discriminating to the stereotypical Jew-fro hairstyle, the show more than anything parodies those who mock Jewish women for their thick, curly hair. At the beginning of this encounter, Ilana declares she contributes “a lot of culture” to the suite, using over-the-top body language and hand gesturing throughout the discussion. Her likely seventh-generation American counterparts sit or stand straight and speak with their hands clasped calmly on top of their laps.
Meanwhile, in the alternate reality where Ilana and Abbi don’t get into the subway on time, they spend the whole day together. The two are chatting on a park bench when the sprinklers go off, ruining Ilana’s hair-straightening efforts. With Ilana’s hair now a wet curly mop, Abbi responds, “No, it looks so good like that. Why do you straighten it?”
Ilana retorts, “‘Cause I look like a true Jew if I don’t straighten it.”
“It’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Abbi shrugs. Ilana says Abbi just wouldn’t understand, but then Abbi reveals she too is Jewish. Though Abbi doesn’t go through the agony of straightening a Jew-fro every day, Ilana is inspired by the comment and decides to wear her hair curly every day from then on.
The show does an excellent job of painting what it is like to be a loud and curly-haired Jewess in a world where blonde spaghetti hair and puritanical dullness is idealized.
The show does an excellent job of painting what it is like to be a loud and curly-haired Jewess in a world where blonde spaghetti hair and puritanical dullness is idealized. While most shows use loud body language and curly hair as negative stereotypes to ridicule Jews, “Broad City” not only welcomes those traits, but the opposite traits are scoffed at. The script does not mock Ilana for her Jewish attributes, but rather embraces them. Most importantly, the two main characters are the writers of the show, and Jewish themselves in real life. Their experience and comportment seem organic, and that’s probably because it is.
Anti-Semitic stereotypes are not the only ones the episode addresses. Like every other episode of “Broad City,” this one offers a wide array of socio-political humor. For example, when Ilana is alone on the subway she leans in to watch African-American break-dancers on the train, and gets kicked in the face in the process. One of the dancers offers her all the money his group has made that day, to which she replies (assuming he is of a lower socio-economic class) that she is just a “silly, upper-middle class NYU [girl], so I wouldn’t take any money from you.” He reveals he also goes to NYU, the Tisch School of the Arts, in fact. “We all do,” he says, pointing to his four dancing partners. Upon learning this, Ilana takes $20 from him.
The title “Sliding Doors” is a nod to the 1998 movie of the same name, which was about a woman named Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow) who either misses or makes her train. The film alternates between the two trajectories of her life depending on her missing or getting onto the train. When she makes the ride, her life stinks. But when she does not, her life turns out perfectly.
In this episode of “Broad City,” the reality where the two spend the whole day together after missing their train seems like the right one. It explains a lot of the backstory to the last three seasons — Abbi’s obnoxious squatter roommate, her tattoo, why Ilana’s hair is worn curly and many more hallmarks of the show’s plot and characters. But why this is not the true reality is made clear by a twist in the ending. In the world where they do make the train, most of their day is separated but they gladly run into each other at the end of the day — and this is the right story.
The fact that the right reality is the one where they have isolated, miserable days until they run into each other ties together the knot that rests at the center of the show — the idea that some friendships are so powerful they can change a person’s entire life. The world is not about everything happening perfectly — missing the subway with someone and then instantly becoming best friends. It’s about separation, loneliness and lack of identity, up until you meet someone who, gradually, makes those things a bit more endurable.