The remarkable thing about the renaissance happening on Comedy Central – a channel on as hot a creative streak as anyone in the business at the moment – is that none of the shows that have been part of it have been all that revolutionary in form. You have a handful of sketch comedy shows (“Key & Peele,” “Inside Amy Schumer,” “Kroll Show”), a couple of reality show parodies (“Nathan For You,” “Review”), and a single-camera sitcom in “Broad City,” which returns for a second season tonight at 10:30.
What distinguishes all of them, then, is in the sharply-defined voice and perspective of each show, and in the execution of it. Key and Peele have a clear and distinct perspective on race, but they're also pop culture omnivores whose show is as much of a chameleon as they are. Amy Schumer has a take on male-female (and female-female) relationships that I haven't seen on TV before, and also a natural inquisitiveness that pops up as much in the sketches as the interviews she conducts. Nathan's social ineptitude drives much of the comedy on his show, just as “Review” is defined by how game Andy Daly is for anything, and by its willingness to explore the long-ranging consequences of each individual story.
“Broad City” is arguably the most traditional of this wave – when it debuted, Comedy Central already had a twentysomething stoner comedy in its lead-in, “Workaholics”(*) – but its stars and co-creators, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, have such a specific sensibility that the show in function doesn't feel like anything else, even if its form is familiar.
(*) Do we need a name for this sub-genre of low-budget cable comedy with disreputable protagonists that's followed the lead of “It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia”? “Mumblecore” isn't right, though there are several half-hour dramedies on TV now that would qualify. There's periodic slapstick that might make “stumblecore” make sense, but I had a thought: most of these shows involve characters who have proven themselves to be too lazy, weak and/or stupid for their environments, so what about… “softcore”? Mull it over a little.
We can start with the broads or the city, all of which are at once familiar and very much their own thing. The Abbi/Ilana dynamic evolved over two seasons of the “Broad City” web series, and some more over the TV series. At this stage, they fit into an archetypal buddy comedy mold that TV writer Chris Downey (“Leverage,” “Suits”) has described(**) as follows: “You have a grounded character who follows the rules and has an unshakable belief they know how the world works. Into their orderly life comes the magical character, who breaks all the rules and yet is rewarded — while the grounded character is punished.” Abbi is the grounded one, who works a menial cleaning job at the gym where she wants to be a trainer, pines after artisanal neighbor Jeremy (Stephen Schneider) and suffers humiliations galore. Ilana's the magical character who somehow survives in a job where she does no work – in one first season episode, she abandoned her post for the day to answer the phones at a temp agency, then abandoned that post to take one of the temp jobs someone called about, royally screwed that up, and suffered no consequences from any of it – and is sexually adventurous and successful where Abbi is repressed and so often thwarted. (The one area where Ilana gets no satisfaction: her unrequited, Abbi-curious crush on her best friend, and the new season is even more sexually frank – including several scenes made more memorable and amusing through their use of pixellated nudity – than the first.)
(**) Downey articulated this theory many times on his currently on-hiatus podcast “The Downey Files,” where he asked fellow writers to help him expand on long-dormant movie pitches, many of which were buddy comedies. I asked him for a concise version of the theory – which applies to many classic straight-man/comic pairings, but not all (it doesn't fit Abbott and Costello, for instance) – to use in this review.
But each actress injects so much of their own personality into their namesake characters that neither of them, whether alone or together, feels like the umpteenth variation on a familiar character type. The stars and the rest of the show's creative team (which includes executive producer Amy Poehler) have, for instance, embraced the oblivious lunacy of the fictional Ilana even more this year, whether showing the limitations of her relationship with cheerful dentist Lincoln (Hannibal Burress, so warm and slyly funny whenever he appears) or giving her the ability to hire a crop of desperate interns to do her job for her. And though Abbi remains a frequent victim, the new episodes wisely give her brief moments of victory, including a full-on, wonderful musical number in the second episode.
The show also takes advantage of its stars' gifts for physical comedy, choreographing bits of slapstick that tend to sneak up on you until you're howling in laughter, like the season 1 scene where Ilana took a curtain rod onto the subway. “Broad” applies to the show's tone as much as to the gender of its stars, presenting New York City as a surreal hellscape where simply getting from place to place can be a nightmarish ordeal, but also a treasure trove of hidden wonders if one knows where to look. The season opens with a subway trip that quickly begins to resemble “Snowpiercer,” and in the third episode, Ilana and her mother (Susie Essman, perfect casting) go on a search for counterfeit purses that eventually takes them into the sewer system. (Ilana's mom, excited: “Now we're cooking with gas. All the good s— is always down a manhole!”)
Seth Rogen guest stars in tonight's premiere as Abbi's potential new boyfriend. As much as Poehler's name on the credits, Rogen's appearance is a sign that Jacobson and Glazer have come a long way from YouTube, yet it's far from a star cameo that takes over the show. He's just the guy in the story, given some funny material to play, but never usurping the women's comic dominance in the world they've created. The same for Kumail Nanjiani (from “Silicon Valley”), who also pops up in the premiere, or other recurring guests like Burress or John Gemberling (as Bevers, the disgusting, omnipresent boyfriend of Abbi's never-seen roommate).
It's one of the most purely funny shows on television – where many “comedies” are really dramas in half-hour form, and others are likable but rarely laugh-out-loud funny – and it's only more confident, sharp and very much its own thing in the new season.
Comedy Central made three episodes available for critics to review. I laughed early and often at all of them, and as I became inundated with other screeners for less interesting January premieres, I found myself returning to those three “Broad City”s (and, after I had watched one of them at least two or three times too many, rewatching season 1 episodes on Amazon Prime) just to sate my hunger for more. This was one of last year's best shows, new or otherwise, and it may be even better this season.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
UPDATE: Comedy Central just ordered a third season, even before tonight's premiere. Excellent.