Happy Days creator Garry Marshall "once said that the secret of a successful sitcom is creating characters whom viewers will be happy to welcome into their living rooms week after week," wrote Francis Davis in a 1992 Atlantic essay, noting that Seinfeld's protagonists were interesting enough to bend the rules. That show was an outlier in many ways, Davis observed, though he predicted that it would represent "an evolutionary dead end" for sitcoms. He was mistaken.
Seinfeld's most enduring legacy might be the despicable protagonist. Co-creator Larry David's famous "no hugging, no learning" credo – as in, let these jerks be jerks– "has since become a mantra for the medium," Matt Zoller Seitz wrote last year, in a New York Magazine essay explaining how Jerry Seinfeld, the show's "coldly expedient hero," paved the way for Tony Soprano. Nowadays we're used to this: Girls, which seems to drain its characters of a little more humanity each season, premiered its fourth season this week; It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, whose characters are basically in the state of nature, returned for its 10th.
The outlier this time is Broad City, a series that inspired instant, crazy devotion when it debuted on Comedy Central last year (it airs on MuchMusic in Canada). Partly because it is like nothing else, and partly because it is the bizarro Seinfeld: a show about nothing, carried by a dynamic, but which, shockingly, takes place in a world where kindness isn't stupid. Its two heroes, Abbi Abrams and Ilana Wexler, are adoring best friends, who treat each other with a warmth so against convention that the show feels impossible. We've come to assume that laughter needs cruelty, and relationships need conflict. How could the opposite be funny, or fun to watch?
Broad City, the duo, is Abbi Jacobson, 30, and Ilana Glazer, 27, who met doing improv and are actual best friends. The characters are theirs, and so is the show, which started as a Web series in 2009; Amy Poehler helped them bring it to television. It's like Seinfeld in form, but, as my friend Naomi pointed out, it's also a lot like Archie: Each instalment finds Abbi and Ilana accomplishing, or failing to accomplish, some minor goal, and by the end everything is just like the beginning. In one episode, Abbi decides she's too old not to buy her own weed, and Ilana decides she's too old not to do her own taxes; hours later, Abbi concludes that having weed is too much responsibility, and Ilana plans to send her taxe forms to her parents. In this season's premiere, they hatch an elaborate scheme to steal an air conditioner from an NYU dorm room. It falls out of Abbi's window in the final scene.
Abbi and Ilana shuffle through sex partners, but prefer each other's company – Ilana's friend with benefits, Lincoln (Hannibal Buress), is more of a third party than a romantic interest, and Ilana's unrequited crush on Abbi has been a theme since the Web series (her sporadic attempts to seduce her are the closest thing they have to an ongoing issue). At a nice restaurant for Abbi's birthday, Ilana fails to mention her shellfish allergy, having stowed an EpiPen in her clutch. "I really know my body, dude," she says, her face ballooning over clams Filipino. "I go up to the edge, and then I scale it back." They end up in the hospital, cuddling and eating leftover lava cake.
Broad City's popularity doesn't necessarily mean that people are getting better, any more than Seinfeld's meant that people were getting worse. But it feels that way, and this raises a more general issue for which I have no resolution. Pop culture can be art, and vice versa; in practice, I barely distinguish between the two. But, to me, the terms imply different moral standards. Art, in principle, has no social obligations; it takes place in a special dimension, and should be whatever it is. But pop culture is the culture that many of us are born into. It socializes us, and so it has responsibilities – to represent people respectfully, to provide role models, to minimize harm.
Seinfeld and David aren't sociopaths; their show's coldness was partly a reaction to all the syrupy, disingenuous sentiment that once made sitcoms unbearable. Twenty-five years later, the same attitude can look just like plain, grating misanthropy, which assumes that our worst instincts define us and that, deep down, we all hate each other. This jibes uneasily with the show's nearly complete lack of non-white characters who weren't caricatures of their non-whiteness, a TV convention that also hasn't changed much. (Girls is a brilliant show in many ways, but it does make my cohort seem godforsaken, and, like Seinfeld, it features an inexcusably pasty New York.)
Broad City is less about "people" – as in, "ugh, people!" – than it is about characters, who are vital and self-replicating. "I feel that is true," Glazer said recently, on the Employee of the Month podcast, "that we have been uncovering this world that's always already been there." Seinfeld – and don't get me wrong, I do love Seinfeld – was similarly artful. Its characters only resembled tropes (eventually they became their own), and the dynamic among them was enough to drive a show about nothing. That dynamic involved treating each other like garbage, and everyone else as disposable, but that's how it had to be – that was the "art." It didn't have to include characters like Babu Bhatt.
Broad City is both good art and more responsible pop culture. It features two fully realized female characters whose friendship supersedes their relationships with men; the cast includes people of colour who are neither delivering food to white people nor standing in for other people of colour; the characters are sexually self-determining, and relatively sexually diverse.
("Statistically," Ilana says, "we're headed toward an age where everybody's going to be, like, caramel and queer.") None of this is tacked on; it's all part of the show's sensibility, which is inclusive, and basically decent, and still really funny.
I have no way to prove this, but I suspect that the children of Broad City will be better young adults than the children of Seinfeld, of which I am one. "I will never understand people," Elaine says, in one of Seinfeld's funniest episodes. "They're the worst," Jerry replies. This is true of course, but so is the opposite.