Broad City’s Growing Pains

An editorial on the transphobic and homophobic humor in Broad City's second season.

Comedy Features Broad City
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When I first discovered Broad City last summer, I felt like I had stumbled into an oasis in the middle of the desert or, more fittingly, like I had walked into a Bed Bath & Beyond after getting off the C train.

In other words, the show was a long-awaited homecoming for me. But as Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer put a wrap on season two tonight, I can’t help but notice that my new home has been in the middle of an extensive remodel and I’m not sure if I like the new digs.

To explain why Broad City has been breaking my heart this season, I have to tell our love story first.

I have a definite type when it comes to TV: female-centered comedy. But I’ve always felt isolated by Girls, Sex and the City and other overstuffed, overprivileged and overdetermined lady-themed productions. I rolled my eyes at my peers when they told me that watching Girls made them feel understood. I lasted five minutes into that premiere before closing HBO Go. And then Broad City came along and I realized how they must have felt all along.

Much like its dual leads, Broad City felt scrappy, grounded, raw—a refreshingly matter-of-fact representation of 21st-century female friendship. Most importantly, the show was hilarious. I watched every episode and then I watched them again, over and over.

But there was another reason why I fell head over heels for Broad City: it may have been the only television comedy that didn’t make me feel like I had to be perpetually on guard waiting for the homophobic, racist and transphobic jokes that seem to inevitably bubble out of the primordial soup of male-dominated writers’ rooms.

In season one, Ilana has a big ole’ lady crush on Abbi that’s both relatable for and hilarious to any queer girl who has ever fallen for a straight friend—I’ll raise my hand here. And although the Ilana of season one makes some pretty suspect comments about men of color, Abbi’s right there to call her out with the brilliant line: “Sometimes you’re so anti-racist that you’re actually really racist.” By the third episode, I stopped worrying about the potshots that virtually all sitcoms take at marginalized groups and just laughed about the pot that Abbi and Ilana had stowed away in their vaginas to avoid the NYPD.

I was at home here—I could take my shoes off, make a cup of tea, and get cozy, without worrying that I’d have to pick up and leave at a moment’s notice.

But season two has proved that nothing gold can stay. My first feeling that something was off came in episode two, when Ilana hires a group of off-the-book unpaid interns at her Internet deals job. The otherwise socially conscious Ilana proves to be a harsh mistress once she acquires a little power, eventually buying a white pant suit that she deems a “white power suit,” which is already one neo-Nazi reference too many for a show with this much heart. Ilana’s “what have I done?” moment comes when she finds her black female intern singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” while doing grunt work for her and, well, even typing that sentence makes me cringe.

As the AV Club’s Caroline Framke wrote, “[T]he joke is too on the nose to provide much of a punch beyond ‘ooh, they went there.’” The Broad City of season one would never have sprung for this cheap use of racial imagery to get a laugh. It’s especially cruel to hire a black actress to play a totally subservient role for the sake of stoking a character’s liberal guilt. Having Ilana say some questionable things about race while being chided by her friend is a far cry from a visual gag that essentially reads as: “Hey, remember slavery?”

If I felt completely at home with Broad City before, this was the moment when I started shifting on the sofa and anxiously checking my watch.

And then “Citizen Ship” happened.

When I heard blatantly transphobic lines coming out of Ilana’s mouth at the start of this episode, I felt dizzy, betrayed even. In the episode, the gang boards a party boat full of lawyers and Ilana tells Lincoln, “I think that every guy on this boat is into Annas with bananas, Denises with penises, gals with dongs. Lawyers love them.”

Not only is this out of character for her—if anything, Ilana has proven herself to be cloyingly hyperethical when talking about LGBT issues—it’s also lazy for a sitcom like this to resort to trans jokes, especially after a year like 2014 when the media finally began to demonstrate a bit of respect for transgender people in television, music and fashion.

And up to this point, I had never seen Broad City be lazy.

This is the show that has given us never-before-seen humor about female masturbation, pegging and pooping when your crush is over. It’s the show that has given us Abbi dancing naked to “The Edge of Glory” and, most recently, Alia Shawkat performing cunnilingus on Ilana. For Broad City to retreat back into the well-trod television territory of transphobia was whiplash-inducing in the worst way.

As if Ilana’s comments weren’t enough, Bevers later announces that Abbi is “transitioning to a man” and Abbi gamely plays along, garnering the attention of the supposedly creepy lawyers in the process. Not only does the episode use invasive epithets to describe transgender women, it mocks the very idea of transgender men, and pathologizes the idea that anyone could be sexually attracted to transgender people in general.

This was not the Broad City I knew. Watching this episode, the characters that I loved seemed as if they suddenly had a stereotypical male comedy writer’s voice coming out of them.

And they did. “Citizen Ship” was penned not by Jacobson and Glazer but by writer and UCB performer Anthony King. When one Twitter user expressed disappointment with King, Jacobson and Glazer over the course of a few tweets (here, here, and here), King reportedly hit the block button instead of taking the criticism from this longtime fan to heart. When a television writer pulls a trans joke out of his pocket, you know that he’s either bigoted, out of ideas, or both, even without including unnecessary transphobic slurs in a script and blocking someone who calls him out on it. My only comfort is that his episode had the second least viewers of any episode in the second season. Hopefully he’s not invited back.

After “Citizen Ship,” I almost stopped watching. This was the moment when I got up and walked toward the door, waiting for the show to give me a good reason to stay.

But it never gave me a reason—it pushed me out the door instead. In the subsequent episode, Abbi attempts to blackmail her gym boss Trey after she learns about his history of sex work. Ilana happens upon some porn featuring Trey during her elaborate masturbation routine and promptly informs Abbi who then leverages the newfound information to become a trainer at the gym. Things go awry and the episode ends with Trey paying for his half of a broken mirror by asking Abbi to leave him alone in the gym so he can do more sex work, which is never presented in the episode as anything other than an inherently shameful act.

Broad City, how did we get here? How did you go from being a scrappy cable underdog—and the darling of women and queer folks everywhere—to being a show that so often punches down—making slavery jokes, mocking transgender people, and presenting sex work as embarrassing? Once you were a show that could produce no think pieces beyond expressions of unbridled enthusiasm and now, here I am, one of your biggest fans, not wanting to write this self-serious critique because I love you so much but also writing it because I love you so much and want you to get better.

After season one, I never could have anticipated this is where we’d be at the end of season two. And at this point, I’m still debating whether or not I’ll show up for season three. I’m out the door and I’m on the lookout for that reason to return.

I used to feel at home here, but I don’t love what you’ve done with the place. So Broad City, if you’re reading this, let’s go shopping together at B B & B, buy some new writers, redecorate the season three scripts, and bring back some of that season one magic. I’ll bring the coupons.

Samantha Allen is the Internet’s premier alpaca enthusiast as well as a Daily Beast contributor. Follow her on Twitter.