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‘Broad City’ Grows Up in Season 4

The world has changed dramatically since the millennial sitcom’s last season. Good news: Abbi and Ilana are changing with it.

Abbi Jacobson and Illana Glazer in ‘Broad City’ Cara Howe/Comedy Central

The last time we saw Broad City’s Abbi and Ilana, they were on their way to the mass matchmaking session slash intercontinental party bus known as Birthright. After an only slightly hyperbolic version of the mad dash to JFK, they’d made their flight, only to find an environment just as chaotic, complete with blow-job-induced turbulence and a depressingly real “find a tampon” situation. It was April 2016, and the Comedy Central sitcom, despite an uneven third season, was insistently, unmistakably itself: madcap, comfortable with period jokes, and, even by showbiz standards, extremely Jewish.

The show returns this Wednesday, and suffice it to say that a great deal has changed outside the sitcom’s hermetically sealed universe since it last aired new episodes. Glazer has taken a stab at studio-comedy stardom, lending her hyperactive, rubber-faced talents to Rough Night. Jacobson has branched out from performing, releasing a book of illustrations and an art-education podcast in addition to acting in indies like this year’s Person to Person. And then there was the unexpected and devastating electoral loss of Broad City’s most prominent guest star.

Thanks in part to its explicit and enthusiastic association with Hillary Clinton, Broad City suddenly feels like a remnant of a bygone era—a cultural moment carbon-dated to the late Obama years, when coastal 20-somethings were optimistic about the trickle-down effect of representation and radical rhetoric. (“We’re headed toward an age where everybody’s gonna be like, caramel and queer,” Glazer’s fictional counterpart, Ilana Wexler, memorably predicted in Season 1.) Broad City was a simultaneous parody and embodiment of the well-intentioned white-girl mind-set, a complicated dynamic The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum expertly pinned down in her review of Season 3. It’s a show that contains the perfect zinger (“Sometimes you’re so anti-racist that you’re actually, like, really racist”); it is also a show that has become synonymous with the semi-appropriative catchphrase “yas, kween.”

What does that show have to offer in 2017? When I cracked open my laptop a few weeks ago to break into the advance episodes provided to critics, it was with no small amount of trepidation. Broad City’s status as a bellwether for urban millennials, not to mention a fresh, funny, interesting show in its own right, was up for evaluation. Broad City no longer feels like a pure expression of the zeitgeist, a shift that’s simultaneously the natural state of a fourth-season series and the unfortunate consequence of cultural factors outside its control. That’s hardly a death sentence; most series aren’t the voice of their generation or burdened with the expectation they should be. But it still begged the question of what, exactly, Broad City was without its urgent topicality.

The good news is that Glazer, Jacobson, and the rest of the Broad City crew seem aware of the hurdles they face and have pushed themselves into new territory accordingly. Broad City’s fourth season is the most grounded the show’s ever been, infused with a newfound sense of maturity but still able to reach new heights of live-action-cartoon absurdism when it needs to. It won’t work for everyone: Some of Broad City’s early fans have simply outgrown it, and some have become disenchanted with its excesses. However you feel, though, it’s clear from the first three episodes that Broad City isn’t content to coast to the finish line—which, considering Glazer and Jacobson’s exponentially elevated profile, it very much could. (The show has already been renewed for a fifth season, though it’s not guaranteed, or even likely, to continue for a sixth.) Broad City is making a good-faith effort to grow up and just plain grow.

To start with a detail that sounds trivial, but colors the entire experience of the season: Let’s talk about the weather. The first three volumes of Broad City were an ode not only to New York City, but specifically New York City in the summertime, when there’s ample daylight for high jinks and temperatures are high enough to justify character-Ilana’s workplace-inappropriate crop tops and patterned leggings. Season 4, meanwhile, was shot in late winter, starting this February. The trees are nude; the palate is grayer; Ilana has been forced to make at least slight concessions to the world around her, including knitted hats and winter coats. I’m not so naive to think this was a conscious attempt to reflect the audience’s recently darkened worldviews; the filming schedule was almost certainly dictated by Glazer and Jacobson’s booked-solid calendars. Still, the change in seasons has a noticeable effect on Broad City’s atmosphere. The show can’t help but feel more sober by default.

Like most sitcoms, Broad City previously thrived on stasis, a mode that fit seamlessly with its project of documenting the 2010s version of New York young adulthood: dead-end jobs, friends-with-benefits relationships that never graduated to something more serious, and protagonists who never seemed particularly bothered by this state of affairs. Why should they be? They had all the time in the world. Season 3 made gestures toward disrupting that balance, as Ilana and longtime hookup Lincoln (Hannibal Buress) broke up and Abbi dated, then accidentally dissed her coworker Trey (Paul W. Downs). This year we find the women in genuinely new places. Gone are pitch-perfect Equinox parody Soulstice and the Grouponlike startup office where Ilana took so many toilet naps. Ilana now has a waitressing gig she seems much better suited to; Abbi’s path, the kind of white-collar office job so many aspiring creatives find themselves settling for, carries a different set of connotations than her previous arc did. It’s not the hilariously awful job you take when you’re first starting out; it’s the mediocre one you take for stability as you age and accept that a fully creative career might not be in the cards. For the first time, Broad City is toying with the comedy of compromise, not struggle. It’s late 20s, not early.

Broad City also continues to deepen its core relationships, starting with the season premiere, a Sliding Doors homage that doubles as an origin story for Ilana and Abbi’s friendship. While still hysterical—Jacobson heroically rocks the most unflattering wig I’ve ever seen—it’s probably the least ha-ha-funny episode in the show’s history, opting instead for the pure sweetness of an epic romance. (Using an iconic rom-com as a template is only the latest and most on-the-nose tactic for putting platonic love on equal footing with romantic love, one of the show’s bedrock and repeatedly stressed themes.) A later episode adds a surprising amount of nuance to one of the most uncomplicated connections on the show: Abbi’s hatred of her roommate’s boyfriend and de facto squatter Bevers (John Gemberling). It turns out Abbi, ever the passive people-pleaser, might not be entirely without blame for the state of her apartment. We even see Abbi actively push against some of Ilana’s zaniest antics, a gesture that doesn’t feel gratingly meta but still acknowledges that the character can often be a little … much. Ilana is still Ilana, but it’s legitimately interesting to see that even Abbi has her limits.

As for “that human skin tag,” as one character calls our current president, he’s addressed both in throwaway one-liners and head on. Political satire is risky territory for any comedy series in 2017, but Broad City’s approach is so loopy, so profane, so ridiculous that it feels in keeping with the show’s carefully exaggerated world. I won’t spoil the specifics, apart from saying how taken aback I was that the Trump subplot seemed to be working. Broad City’s Clinton cameo rendered the show somewhat unfashionable among the large portion of its key demo that passionately supported Bernie. (See the backlash to Glazer and Jacobson’s decision to bleep Trump’s name like a curse word this season, which ignored the undeniable fact that bleeped words are intrinsically funny.) But Season 4 proves that Glazer and Jacobson are gutsy enough to take on the challenge of parodying the president beyond parody.

Taken together, these new episodes feel like a lesson in how to move a show forward even after its relevance has inevitably peaked. Broad City can’t recapture the thrill of an entire generation of city dwellers stumbling on a show made just for them. It can, however, dig deeper into itself, preserving what works, writing off elements that have lived out their comic utility, and finding organic, potential-laden options for whatever comes next. Broad City’s done the work. All that’s left for us to do is kick back, light a joint, and enjoy.