New York, You’re Getting Me Down, But I Love You
Somewhere around the ninetieth Sex and the City thinkpiece, describing New York as a character unto itself became a radioactive cliché, toxic and not to be touched.# Still, there’s no getting around the fact that the shadow of the Big Apple continues to loom large on the current televisual landscape. Two of the most vital shows presently on air not only take place inside the city that never sleeps, but actively integrate the setting into their framework. Girls and Broad City are ‘New York shows’ through and through, but they ditch the uberglam boutiques and trendy bistros frequented by Carrie and Co. for a more realistically jaded portrayal, all without sacrificing the inexplicable affection for what its residents love to describe as the greatest city on Earth.
With both shows centered around gal-to-gal companionship and solidarity, it’s easy to imagine them living together as odd-couple roommates. Broad City goads Girls into squeezing into a cocktail dress and hitting the bars every weekend, and at the end of the night Girls pours Broad City back into bed. Broad City does her best to keep the perpetual reek of weed confined to her room, and Girls does her best not to be uptight about it. Broad City’s the fun, messy, dysfunctional one, and Girls is the anxious, brainy, dysfunctional one. But, despite their differences, they’re united by the love, hate, and love-hate they have for New York.
In the New York of Broad City and Girls, everything’s a fucking hassle. The city’s characterized by the difficulty of every last simple task, from getting into a locked apartment to retrieving a catastrophically misplaced cell phone to submitting a formal complaint to the local officials. Everything seems to be far away from everything else; a recent Broad City episode centered around the travails and perils of a simple trip from Point A to Point B without the aid of smartphone maps. Girls has a smart way of playing these metropolitan frustrations straight, teasing out sweeping existential concerns from the indignity of missing the L train or dumping your trash in your neighbor’s cans because yours are already full. Broad City, on the other hand, exaggerates the tribulations of city life until they reach hilariously cartoonish proportions. Ilana’s mother knows the obscure spots to get the best knockoff purses in Chinatown, but it’s not in the back room of some hole-in-the-wall; getting to the good stuff involves what appears to be a consensual kidnapping and a trip into a subterranean netherworld. #
When it comes to the social outlay of the city, things only get worse.
In Lena Dunham’s New York, “overwhelming pretension” must be the first bullet point on most party invites’ enumerated dress code. Hannah and her pals shuffle from soirée to soirée, all well-stocked with absolutely insufferable artist-types, from the Jorma Taccone-played Booth Jonathan (make-believe names are always the first giveaway that a character deserves a good slap to the face) to the gathered attendees at season one’s Bushwick bash, the site of Shoshanna’s legendary Crackcident. Encounters with old school chums quickly turn into displays of dominance, lording cool jobs and apartments in the right neighborhood over one another.
Broad City’s not as bleak about it, but it similarly sees the city as a vast, shimmering ocean full of dud fishes. There ought to be a little clock in the corner of Broad City episodes that counts down how much time it takes for each new dream guy to reveal himself as insane, evil, or boring. Save Ilana’s main squeeze Lincoln (Hannibal Buress, radiating zen self-assuredness like a Buddha that grew up on Dr. Dre), a neverending stream of creepazoids parade through our heroines’ lives. It can be something innocuous like being overly particular about their sex toy standards or something seriously unsavory like the pair of DJs that attempt to trick Abbi and Ilana into a four-way, but for a city filled with literal millions of people it can often feel like Broad City’s New York City is all dregs. The jobs suck, the apartments are awful, and everything’s too expensive — so naturally, it’s the most magical city on the face of the planet.
Both shows may clearly espouse an exasperation with the city, but all that grousing comes from a place of hard-won pride and abiding love.
Broad City doesn’t front; in an episode celebrating her roomie’s new American citizenship, Ilana exclaims, “It’s unbelievable that we live in a city where our ancestors passed through Ellis Island!” On Girls, Hannah attempts to bust out of New York City with a move to Iowa for a prestigious graduate program, but it takes only a handful of episodes for her to make a defeated return to the city and the only life she can imagine living.
The city can be shitty, but it’s also a place where you can get a falafel sandwich at 3 A.M. when you really need it, where nights on the town stretch into the wee small hours until they become mornings of recovery. In a scene from Girls’ currently-running fourth season, Elijah (Andrew Rannells) makes it to brunch a little tardy. His explanation why encapsulates what’s irritating and irresistible about New York: “I woke up in Harlem smelling like moussaka and I didn’t have time to go home and change,” he says. “There’s a lot of things happening above 125th Street that I’m very happy to know about. I stopped at the First Corinthians Church for a musical interlude, and then on my way downtown, I rescued a kitten.” Keeping abreast of which hip foods are being eaten at which hip venues in which hip neighborhoods is absolutely exhausting. The tradeoff here is that actually taking part in the city’s bustling leisure scene can be a lot of fun, and more crucially, can’t be found elsewhere. When Dunham and Jacobson and Glazer implicitly whinge about NYC, it’s because they’ve earned that right.
As latter-day philosopher Albert Hammond Jr. once wrote, it’s hard to live in the city. To a gal trying to survive her twenties with a paying job and a heart fully intact, every day completed with collapse is proof of inner strength. Accordingly, complaints becomes evidence of one’s wherewithal. It’s New York. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. But then, you won’t want to.
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