Broad City Season 4 Premiere: The Abbi & Ilana Origin Story

It’s been a year and a half since the last season of Broad City, and a lot has changed. It was a different era then, early in the year of our Lord, 2016: Donald Trump’s chances at the presidency seemed unlikely at best, and we were so sure that Hillary was going to win that our biggest political concerns were ending up on Bumble dates with Bernie bros.

During season three of the show, an entire episode was devoted to Abbi and Ilana volunteering for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and concluded by a cameo from HRC herself. It was a darling episode, and exciting at the time to have her share the screen with our favorite stoner Jewesses, but it ultimately felt like a cute blip on Hillary’s greater ascent to leader of the free world.

Well. It may be a far bleaker time in America now, but Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer are not giving up. They’ve already said that the show will be more political this season, going so far as to bleep out Trump’s name every time it’s mentioned. But the opener to season four seems to be a palate cleanser, intentionally taking place in a simpler time—2011—when the characters of Abbi and Ilana first meet.

(Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

The episode, “Sliding Doors,” is a departure from previous episodes in that in takes place on an alternate timeline structure, a tribute to the 1998 romantic comedy of the same name, best known as the film which featured Gwyneth Paltrow’s most iconic haircut (the blonde pixie, obviously) and worst British accent. Already, I was charmed that our Jewesses chose this mediocre romantic comedy that I have nonetheless watched multiple times as inspiration for the episode. The film alternates between two parallel universes, based on the two paths Gwyneth’s life could take, depending on whether or not she catches a train. (Spoiler: In one universe she gets hit by a van and dies; in the other universe she ends up with the Scottish guy with bad teeth.)

The Broad City version opens in New York City, 2011, with Abbi and Ilana separately descending into a subway station. Ilana’s hair is flat-iron straightened and she has a septum piercing, flawlessly transforming her into a Jewish NYU undergrad of the aughts. It’s a classic meet-cute: Abbi—with bangs and a high ponytail—has no rides left on her MetroCard, so Ilana swipes her in; Ilana then has no rides left for herself (a sweet and subtle touch towards Ilana’s role as the giver of the relationship), and hops the turnstile.

At this point, the episode delineates between the two alternate timelines: What would happen if Abbi and Ilana made the train, and what would happen if they didn’t. In the first timeline, Abbi thanks Ilana once they get on the train, and they move to separate ends of the car; both of their days then follow along disastrous paths.

Ilana without Abbi gets kicked in the face by subway performers. She gets fired from her job at the Grey Dog on Canal Street for sleeping in the bathroom, using a burlap sack filled with Kenyan coffee beans as a pillow. She comes home to find her roommates, three prissy Upper East Side types whom she all calls “Madison,” scheming to kick her out of their apartment via a PowerPoint presentation entitled “The Ilana Wexler Problem” (#28: “when your hair is curly, it looks like pubes”). She arrives late to a lecture at NYU, only to realize that it’s her turn to present, and she approaches the front of the classroom and begins to sing; she doesn’t even know what class she’s in. Walking around afterwards, a biker rides past her and rips off her dress, leaving her running around frantically in a striped bra, high-waisted tights, socks, and loafers.

Abbi without Ilana is harassed by a man on the street selling bubbles, unable to come up with a clever retort without Ilana by her side. Her ponytail gets cut off by the “New York City snipper,” and she spends the rest of the day walking around with a truly horrendous, 80s-esque bouffant, bangs still intact. She comes home to find a 2011-era Bevers (John Gemberling), shirtless and svelte (in a strange and unexpected use of CGI), and in the spirit of generosity, tells him he should always eat her food and never pay for anything, setting the stage for years of mooching to come. Later that day, she sits alone in a fro-yo shop, lonely and dejected as she watches two friends feeding each other their desserts.

Abbi’s side of the day is not quite as fleshed-out or funny as Ilana’s, but it’s a fair representation of the two characters without each other: Abbi becomes a boring pushover without Ilana, while Ilana without Abbi becomes comically unhinged.

Meanwhile, the Abbi and Ilana that missed the train are having a banner day. Already late, Ilana decides to skip work, and then gets a text from her boss that she’s fired, which means she and Abbi can spend the rest of their day together. They traipse around the West Village, in a manner that is, typical of the show, a perpetual love letter to that spontaneity that only seems possible in New York. They smoke a bowl in a park, shop at Bed Bath & Beyond (for Abbi, obviously), and stroll around the city while discussing how much they love the Obamas (Abbi: “I’m so relieved that we have a hot, black guy as president.” Ilana: “I mean, I feel like we’re finally moving forward!”). At one point, Ilana’s hair accidentally gets wet, and her signature curls reappear. Abbi asks her why she doesn’t always wear her hair naturally; “Cause I look like a ‘true Jew’ this way,” Ilana replies. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Abbi counters, launching Ilana’s skepticism of Abbi’s Jewishness, one of the funnier moments of the episode (“Check the records,” Ilana says, pointing to her own nose. “Did you get work done?”).

Then they visit a $10 psychic. While eating a burrito bowl, the psychic (Constance Shulman, a.k.a. the voice of Patty Mayonnaise) informs them that they are going to die that day. Seizing on this information, just in case they are going to die that day, Abbi gets a tattoo, something she has always wanted to do: a bust of Oprah Winfrey on her lower back.

broad city season 4 episode 1 psychic
Photo courtesy of Comedy Central

We are expected to believe that the Abbi and Ilana who spent the blissful day together are the ones that become friends, but in fidelity to Sliding Doors, there’s a bait and switch, and the seemingly happy storyline is not the one that ends well. While smoking a bowl on Delancey Street and sharing a pizza, Ilana tells Abbi that she had the best day.

“Would you ever want to hang out again?” Abbi asks. “Like, tomorrow?” Ilana responds that she would love to.

Then they walk out into the street and are struck by a bus with an Apprentice ad on it, dying instantly. The frame stops on the photograph of a smiling Donald Trump and the words, “You’re Fired.”

Back in timeline one, our two protagonists are still alive, and they run into each other at the same spot on Delancey Street. Ilana has the weed; Abbi has the pizza. Ilana’s sporting a black eye and a New York City t-shirt because of her stolen clothes, and Abbi’s hair still looks like she walked out of a KISS video. They recognize each other from the subway that morning and tell each other about their terrible days.

“Do you want to go for a walk?” Ilana asks, and they stroll off into the proverbial sunset, bonding over the injustice of not being able to order eggs after 11 a.m.

It’s a sweet episode, if a bit minor; it feels like a slow entrée into the new season rather than a slam dunk. Tight and well-crafted, the plot and structure flow seamlessly, but the jokes only land sometimes. The comedy feels tentative, as if the hiatus of the show took a bit of a toll on the humor.

But ultimately, what makes this episode work—and what has always made this series work—is the loving and steadfast nature of Abbi and Ilana’s friendship. It particularly works well as a tribute to and subversion of the romantic comedy genre: The takeaway is that Abbi and Ilana would have met each other no matter what, only they’re not lovers, but best friends. We rarely see the clichés about fate and destiny applied to friendship, but there’s something much sweeter about these two fatefully ending up together than there ever was between Gwyneth and the mediocre Scottish guy. And what better way to be reminded of this than to see it from the very beginning?


Top photo via Comedy Central/Cara Howe

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