Girls, Broad City, and Over-the-Topness

“By their power of intimate close-up, movies reveal the subtleties of facial expression and the ambiguities of mood and motivation.” (Paglia)

 

I recently re-watched Girls, and then off a recommendation, chased it with half a season of Broad City. The latter struck me as artless and also socially valueless in comparison with Dunham’s HBO series, and I’ve been trying to articulate why.

Broad City is fundamentally an over-the-top drama. All its situations are exaggerated to the point of absurdity. Which, sure, this the point of Broad City; point taken. But I still think over-the-top art devalues itself in that a central function of movies/art/literature is norms- and bounds-drawing, which depends upon observing very fine-grained, subtle distinctions in human behavior. Instead of deftly navigating and manipulating said boundaries and norms, the over-the-top show merely identifies their valence (positive or negative) and then maxes them out. It’s an easy way out — less skillful, and with less value to a viewer.

In Girls, behaviors toe the line of acceptability. Perhaps a behavior is socially acceptable in one context, but feels… strange and unnerving in another. So our attention is constantly being called to observing and interrogating these boundaries/norms/contexts. Here’s a clip from that show. It’s the top result to a YouTube search, which I think makes my point. Almost every scene in Girls is like this; I can essentially pick one at random or based on an arbitrary metric like virality and you can still watch the complexity unwind:

Obviously everyone’s behavior here is inappropriate, but is it clear who’s in the right and wrong? What level of confrontation would have been appropriate instead? Near the end of the scene, the exchange approaches over-the-topness, but for a solid duration we’re presented with an interrogation of real-world interaction norms. How should Adam have responded? Is his apology enough? What constitutes appropriate or acceptable behavior, on either side of the interaction? These questions are especially important in the 21st century: our cultural transition out of Judeo-Christianity into “post-patriarchy” has left us in-between, our etiquette and norms of interaction in a liminal stage where the rules surrounding them are never obvious and never fully agreed-upon.

But Broad City points out behaviors that are obviously, unambiguously unacceptable. In one scene, a very fat man (the stereotype alone here is painful) is crashing at his girlfriend’s apartment while she’s out of town. He’s shown lying shirtless and sweaty on the bed of this girlfriend’s roommate — the bed, that is, of our protagonist Abbi — eating an ice cream bar. When he accidentally drops a chunk of the bar onto the sheets, instead of cleaning it off he covers it with a comforter. You don’t need an etiquette manual to know this is unacceptable and ethically un-okay. The takeaway is clear, and our understanding of certain boundaries isn’t improved by watching (think questions like, “How welcome is a significant other in an apartment?” “Does Abbi has a right to evict a roommate’s significant other from an apartment if that roommate is letting him stay there?”).

For parallel structure, a clip from Broad City. Do you think you understand any of the dynamics at play better than you did before? Abbi’s interaction with the black Bed, Bath, & Beyond employee has touches of minstrelsy, but is there any way of parsing it through the ridiculousness of the interaction?

 

“It’s like that moment when you’re with a friend at an establishment and they know all the employees.” This is a real phenomenon, but maybe say something meaningful about it instead of just observing it exists? The show’s exchanging a knowing nod with viewers, but there’s no substance behind the gesture.

Broad City has the vibe and identity-based selling points that Girls has. It has all the cultural signifiers of Brooklyn creative classdom that causes so many fans to either (and alternately) fetishize or identify with it. Its title credits pander to the Burger generation. No doubt this is a factor in its popularity. But ultimately, Broad City is a terrible model for how humans think/interact/behave. Lena Dunham is so impressive exactly because she has such a firm grip on social reality to produce Girls. The writers of Broad City would need only a loose grasp on social reality to write most of their jokes. It’s a testament to this that there’s no way to have a conversation about whether Broad City is “self aware” or not. It’s clear the direction they’re parodying things in (their “take”). The take is never clear in Girls, and that’s because a given scene or situation’s relationship to the ever-changing “rules” of social life is always ambiguous.

Broad City S3E1:

Ilana: “These Saudi women… I can’t even believe it, they need written permission from their male guardians (that’s what they call their husbands) to let them go outside their house. Like they’re trapped unless they get their permission. People don’t know about this, they need to wake up to the injustices of the world.”

Abbi: “Ugh, the bottomless mimosas aren’t on the menu anymore.”

Ilana: “Are you kidding me? There was no sign. This is so unfair.”

 

The punchline isn’t just obvious; it’s also tired and played-out — in sum, the definition of boring. At the end of brunch, after Abbi and Ilana step outside to unlock Ilana’s bicycle, Ilana asks to use the restroom before she leaves. The hostess is adamant that the bathroom is for customers only, and that given the pair have paid the check, they’re no longer considered customers. When Abbi and Ilana’s protest, she asks, “If you ate here two months ago and came back, would you be a customer?” The scene is a shoddy counterfeit of Larry David. If it had happened on Curb Your Enthusiasm, both parties would have been — at least to some extent — in the right. Thus, while the joke of Broad City is “the hostess is a bitch, haha!” the joke of Curb is always, “aren’t social norms strange and arbitrary, varying so widely between tribes so that communication breakdowns are ubiquitous”?


 

Ross Douthat’s “Requiem for Girls”“Requiem for Girls” is still the best take on the series out there: something very different was going on. The fall of patriarchy had basically happened, the world had irrevocably changed… and nobody knew what to do next.