Dear Television: Broad City, Season Two, Episode Four, 'Knockoffs'
Girls, Hit Your Hallelujah!
One day in the distant future, some intrepid media historian will write a definitive history of movement in 21st century television. It will speak of the stillness of Walter White, the awkward sexual tangoes of Hannah Horvath and Adam Sackler, the Neesons freak-out pantomimes of Key and Peele, the swaggering drifts of Olivia Pope, the graceful lunges of Arya Stark, and, right there, on the cover will be a hologram of Ilana Wexler dancing. I’ve written almost as many words about the blazing glory of Glazer’s moves as I have about the Dear Television pet theory that Sally Draper is the stealth protagonist of Mad Men, but Broad City keeps giving these broads occasions to funk us up, and I am not done writing about it.
This was an episode about joy—Broad City’s great unwavering theme—and authenticity—its current satirical target. As my esteemed colleagues have written over the past few weeks, Broad City’s New York is a safe, affirmative, ultimately only aesthetically dangerous space. It’s not the scrubbed-clean, depoliticized, loft utopia of Friends. (That privilege was unthinking and blind, whereas this privilege is almost cartoonishly intentional.) Broad City’s New York—somewhat like the Manhattan of Sex and the City—is something like a big grungy bounce house. You might get your shorts dirty, you may accidentally bump your privates against something unwholesome, maybe you get an infection, but no matter which way you step, you’re going to be okay. (When Ilana’s mom tells Abbi not to forget to wear a condom, it comes off as a quaint, motherly expression of concern. Don’t forget to take your vitamins!)
And so, in lieu of the possibility of crushing disappointment, the possibility of physical harm, or even the possibility of lasting heartbreak, Broad City exploits its bumper-lane panorama of New York City to allow for the possibility of transcendent, unhinged joy. Nobody on Girls or Friends has ever been as happy as Abbi or Ilana.
But where does all this joy come from? Experience! Our broads, like Grandma Wexler hooking up with “bisexual alien” Little Richard, choose to experience life to the fullest possible extent. They eat shellfish until they almost die. They hook up with multiple interns. Yes, they’ll have seconds on those truffle-fried mac and cheese balls, and they’ll drink their West Nile Coladas to the dregs! When Jeremy tells Abbi he hasn’t seen Six Feet Under, her favorite show, she responds, with a wistful warble, “You’re so lucky!” The only thing better than having seen Six Feet Under would be the ability to see it again for the first time. “To life and to remember and to being and that’s it,” she says in her toast.
The syntactical weirdness of that toast is part of the point. Abbi and Ilana are sensualists, but sloppily so. Like Abbi’s Parkour moves or Ilana’s political rants, this is a tornado of enthusiasm and embarrassment and nouns and verbs and tenses. But at its heart, living, remembering, being—that’s the religion of Broad City. And, like Pentecostals overwhelmed by the presence of the Holy Spirit, Abbi and Ilana dance at the mere prospect of making memorable, life-affirming mistakes.
Already this season, we’ve seen Abbi celebrate her Bevers-less existence with a long-take nude-take on Tom Cruise’s Risky Business dance; we’ve seen her engage in some super-funky hand jives with the staff of Bed Bath & Beyond; last week, we saw Abbi both transition into her Vicodin-Weed-Smoothie hallucination by briefly wiggling her way through a Deee-Lite video, and then freak her way through the hallway after scoring a date with Jeremy. Empty apartment? Jump on it! 20 percent off housewares? Jump on it! Sexy neighbor? JUMP ON IT.
And now, this episode, we finally have Fly Girl Ilana’s big number in the sewer celebrating the fact that Abbi has been presented with yet another precious opportunity to experience something for the first time: pegging Jeremy. (This dance sequence might be my favorite thing I’ve seen in 2015. Not just on TV. The best thing my eyes have beheld, full stop.)
But all of this joy is also pegged(!), this episode, to some shifting ideas about authenticity. The broads spend much of “Knockoffs” dancing around the opposition between real and fake, finding spots to explore. Jeremy’s apartment, for instance, is like a lumbersexual showroom, filled with cardamom homebrew and “speciality leather-blown dildos,” and this is initially appealing to Abbi. There’s an aesthetic of purity here, of honest-to-goodness cult value that seems like it goes right along with Abbi and Ilana’s Seize the Day ethos. There are a million stories in the naked city, and they want to peg them all. But Jeremy’s Portlandian curatorial eye eventually blurs, and all this swag gets reread as evidence of childish persnicketiness. Jeremy, it turns out, is exactly the hipster twit Budweiser says he is.
What ends up being meaningful to Abbi, Ilana, and company are the counterfeit experiences. Ilana bonds with her mother chasing knockoff designer bags, and it’s those very bags that allow Ilana’s mother to grieve for her own lost mom. The whole family is gathered together by Ilana’s brother’s dissonant singing of “On Eagle’s Wings” (a Christian funeral hymn) at his grandma’s Shiva. And despite Jeremy’s bristling at the idea of Abbi’s knockoff sex toy, it’s the only one we see put to good use when she sticks it to her wall and hangs costume jewelry off of it. But experience—as William James, whose obsession with nitrous oxide-induced ecstatic experience would make him fast friends with our broads, tells us—doesn’t need to be authentic to be “real.” It doesn’t matter if Grandma actually made it with Little Richard. All that matters is that that idea had an effect in the world. Abbi and Ilana made it real because they believed.
And this is at the heart of Broad City’s shifty, occasionally opaque critique of hipsterism. A show like Portlandia or even Girls gets a lot of mileage out of mercilessly skewering the pretensions of the hip. And the thing that nominally distances that critique from any kind of mean-spiritedness is the claim that it’s ultimately “loving.” In other words, we love these dumb snobs despite the fact that they’re dumb snobs, so it’s not mean. Carrie and Fred and Lena stay out of trouble the same way all bullies do, by putting their victims in a playful headlock when the principal comes over and saying, “Nah, we’re just joshin’ around, right, buddy?”
But Ilana and Abbi aren’t bullies. And that’s why the odd satirical pose toward Ilana’s feminism a few episodes ago was so perplexing. But I think, in retrospect, those scenes weren’t criticizing Ilana so much as celebrating her for doing her imperfect best. The broads aren’t idealists or utopians. There is no actually existing ideal of New York life for them to either occupy or come up against. They’re pragmatists, riding that nitrous wave with Billy James. They find the possibility of joy in every nook and cranny of this preposterous world they’ve created whether it’s a prix fixe shellfish dinner or a sewer sale on Birkin bags. Broad City is a cartoon, but sometimes in its ecstatically dumb pastiche of high and low it finds something that feels joyfully, thoughtlessly real.
Isn’t that a Christian song,
Dancing in the Dark
It’s impossible not to start talking about this episode right at its navel, the moment I’d join Phil as describing as “the best thing my eyes have beheld in 2015, full stop”: Ilana’s sewer dance of joy. Let’s linger on it a little more: Learning that Abbi has been given a strap-on dildo by the long-idealized Jeremy, Ilana, overwhelmed, puts her friend on “hold, please,” places her phone on the floor, and then, in quick sequence: claps, bumps and grinds, flips upside down into a supported hand stand, briefly (and invertedly) twerks, and then extends into a slow elegant walkover, belly and bra exposed. Grabbing her phone she pumps her hand into the air like a superhero; like the champion of the world; like she’s just won the Oscar for Best Supporting Ilana.
What makes this moment so great? It’s hard to say. It’s something about how deliberate Ilana is in her ecstasy, how she prolongs her walkover; how powerfully comfortable she is in her lovely body. But it’s more than that, of course. It’s about the contrast between what seems to us like the moment’s exceptional improbability — the sewer, the bags, the dildo, the dance, the man eating noodles — and how everything but the dildo seems unremarkable to Ilana (and how everyone around Ilana, in turn, finds her ecstasy unremarkable). Ilana’s dance gives us a vision of a world where a different kind of reasonable holds true, and watching it one has the sense that if Ilana is possible, anything is possible.
Which is an interesting thing to encounter in this episode, called “Knockoffs,” which shows us, among other things, that Ilana isn’t actually the sui generis unicorn she has always seemed to be. In fact, as the show’s cold open makes abundantly clear, Ilana is a dead ringer—speaking the same words, shaking the same kind of nail polish, ogling the same tush—as her dear old mom. In other words, it’s not only purses and dildos that are revealed to be knockoffs in this episode: It’s Ilana who’s a duplicate, too.
It isn’t exactly bad to discover Ilana’s lack of originality. As Phil writes above, it’s the “inauthentic” in this episode that is the greatest source of joy. But still, I think we should pause over the significance of a world with multiple Ilanas. While it’s thrilling to discover that there are more of her!!, is it a little bit diminishing, too? Is she reduced when the show plays her not as a singularity, but as a product of a particular place and culture—almost a type?
So to understand the weird magic of Ilana, let’s think about how she fits in with this episode’s other knockoffs: They’re not all created equal. There are the counterfeit bags, first of all, and there’s the knockoff replacement dildo Abbi buys after ruining Jeremy’s beloved original in the dishwasher. But then, even Jeremy’s custom-made artisanal dildo is already a knockoff: it’s a fake or replacement penis, even if it is a “Shinjo.” And, similarly, the real problem with Bobbie’s bags isn’t that they’re counterfeit rather than brand name—it’s that she’s using them, as Phil points out, as a sort of strange, inadequate replacement for her recently-deceased mother. And we judge these things differently. If the show leaves us feeling that maybe a knockoff dildo is finally just as useful as a dick (Jeremy’s doesn’t do Abbi much good), a bag is not really a replacement Grandma Esther, even if both bags and Grandma are taken precipitously away.
But let’s push it further: There’s the knockoff kind of “feeling” that Bobbie engages in when Ilana bellows at her mother to “FEEL SOMETHING!” and Bobbie responds by fondling the lining of a bag (here, the bag’s lining becomes a less-threatening stand-in for Bobbie’s own inner life). Moving from puns to personality, there’s how Abbi and Ilana both seem to be experiencing knockoffs, cheap versions, of the other’s desired reality: Abbi is really pegging, but pegging isn’t really what she wants to do, while Ilana’s really getting off on the pegging she only imagines. And then, there are the narrative knockoffs: Even as Abbi is plowing Jeremy “like a queen,” Ilana and her mother have ventured into the place where you find “all the good shit”: down a manhole. The quick juxtaposition between the two scenes makes it clear: Abbi pegs Jeremy for real, but metaphorically speaking, Ilana and Bobbi are getting just as busy by pegging New York.
So what do we make of all this? Sometimes it feels just like play. When Ilana and Bobbie go down a manhole (anal metaphor) to buy a purse (vaginal metaphor), and then shortly thereafter we find Abbi’s purse containing a dildo (penis metaphor), the slipperiness of bodies and objects, acts and metaphors, seems extravagant for their own sake, a joke the writers just wanted to press as far as they could.
But play isn’t all that’s going on. Phil’s pointed out how the knockoffs help Broad City skewer the fetishizing relationship hipsters can have to the authentic and the real, even as Broad City’s criticism is more generous than comparable shows. I agree with Phil about what’s happening—I mean, it’s hard not to see the critique of pious faux authenticity when Jeremy trots off to “help some underprivileged kids do some woodworking today”—but I also see the show as doing a different kind of work. The doublings have to do not only with joy and mockery, but also a kind of grief.
That’s a strange proposal, I know. Broad City is a comedy. Dear Television, collectively—me too —has agreed that it creates a world of safety and absurdity. Of possibility. And I’m not saying that this episode is, finally, sad. But this episode’s humor seems richer to me because it lets in a different possibility: that of darkness. The show’s figuring out its own solutions to problems that dramas, for instance Six Feet Under, which Abbi’s dialogue evokes, could address more explicitly.
In this way, maybe the best point of comparison for “Knockoffs’” elaborate doubling isn’t so much Girls or Friends but rather Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Wilde’s play, famously written at the peak of his career and immediately before his arrest for “gross indecency,” shares Broad City’s rich obsession with doubling and fakery, and also with butts (“bunburying” instead of “pegging” being the operative verbs). In both stories, the doubling works in double registers: It helps characters hide from what they don’t want to know about themselves (just like Jeremy doesn’t want to know he’s being a twee bastard, and Bobbie doesn’t want to admit she’s grief-stricken about her mom). But it also, and often at the same time, helps to disperse desires that can’t be fulfilled, whether because of social limitations or actual loss.
“Wouldn’t that be more like a gay thing?” Ilana’s dad asks, when he first hears about pegging. The show is quick to tell us that he’s wrong; “gayness” as such isn’t what’s at stake here. Instead, what we find is a kind of queerness: performance, play, triangulation and desires that defy easy categorization. (And it’s maybe for this reason that I read the show’s attention to condoms, staph infections, and pink eye a little differently than Phil does: Given the show’s clear dialogue with queer critique, and especially given the show’s eighties aethetic and its anal reading of the city, it’s hard for me not to have a sense that the infections and condom warnings are standing in for larger risks, namely AIDS, that flit around the show’s sexualized stories but that the show can’t exactly name in its comedic register. Here, I feel them coming home to roost.)
What are we grieving? And what are the largest stakes of the show’s doubling? I think it’s not just that the show demonstrates that, with Abbi and Ilana’s commitment to belief and love, we can move to a broader sense of what’s real. More, it’s that we have to make new things real, because of the things—grandmothers, friends, partners, Ilanas—this episode knows we’ll all eventually lose.
I know the difference between a cross stitch and a sailmaker’s stitch,