The brilliance of Broad City‘s first couple of seasons would seem to be a very difficult act to sustain. The Comedy Central series works in part thanks to perpetual escalation: Ilana’s outfits, say, find a way to get yet more outlandish week-over-week, and her adventures with Abbi edge closer to madness as the pair travel through their slightly askew New York. Like the plotting on a soap opera, the humor of Broad City is the sort that could tip at any point into simple incoherence.
More complicated still is the fact that Abbi and Ilana are growing up. The pair, at some indiscriminate point in their mid-to-late-ish twenties, can stay narcissistic and self-sabotaging, but realistically go through the same sort of self-created crises over and over. That’s what makes the third season of Broad City, debuting Wednesday night, such an achievement; it combines what about the show has always worked with a new sense of seismic life change roiling under the surface.
That means that, yes, Ilana (Ilana Glazer) is still performatively sexual and dramatic, still a terrible employee, and still beholden to a narcissism that only fails when she’s called upon to help Abbi (Abbi Jacobson), whose relative shyness still conceals her own intriguing manias. But the circumstances are changing meaningfully; suddenly, the pair’s actions, which have so often taken place in a sitcom-like airlessness where actions lack consequences, really mean something.
Abbi, for instance, has been promoted within her Equinox-esque luxury gym—as a trainer, she’s now under a greater amount of scrutiny, the sort she used to get to dodge as a cleaner. Her terrible job had its luxuries, as does Ilana’s, which she seriously jeopardizes after getting placed in charge of her company’s social-media accounts. Since the show’s very beginning, Ilana has been blowing off her job, so much so that it became a part of the series’s formula.
Indeed, the third season of Broad City seems to be in large part about tossing out the show’s established setup while still obeying its comic rules. Abbi and Ilana are still total messes, but it’s getting a lot less cute for those around them, in a way that feels ripped from life. In Wednesday night’s premiere episode, for instance, the pair end up at an art gallery show of one of Abbi’s contemporaries; that they end up sabotaging the entire affair as to the culmination of a perfectly calibrated plot is predictable enough, but there’s a new sense of melancholy underpinning the events. When we started the series, Abbi wanted to be an artist, too; two years later, those dreams only feel farther away.
Broad City isn’t afraid of change; last season, when Abbi’s neighbor had an uncomfortable sexual encounter with her, he left her life rather than continuing on as part of an endless coupling plot. But, paradoxically, it makes those plot changes really sink in by keeping its format exactly the same, from sunny theme song to a rarely-flagging bright face put on each week’s degradations by episode’s end.
This series is often compared to Girls, a show whose central characters are around the same age as Abbi and Ilana. But as Girls‘ season premiere, airing Sunday, makes clear, the shows’ respective treatments of growing up couldn’t be more different. Girls is struggling to keep its core foursome, and their too-big assortment of friends and exes, all in one another’s orbit, while Broad City, drilling down on a single central friendship, is unafraid to let the world change around them. It’s that willingness to get real and even get a little sad that makes the characters’ protectiveness towards each other make sense, and makes the jokes shine. A loopy show that once seemed perched on the edge of insanity is revealing itself to be the document of how two people keep one another sane.