Broad City: “Abbi’s Mom” Season 4 Episode 5 Review

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Broad City tackles two tricky plotlines about depression with humor and poignancy.

The tightrope walk that a comedy has to do when exploring more serious topics is a difficult one. How do you give the subject ample weight while still remaining true to your genre? The past few seasons of You’re The Worst have proven to be incredibly nimble meditations on depression, while simultaneously being totally hilarious. Now, Broad City has joined their ranks with a funny and surprisingly frank episode that illustrates the specificities of two different types of depression.

The first comes from Abbi’s titular mom, Joanne, who’s in town to visit her “New York City artist” daughter. It’s clear from the cold open in which Abbi and Ilana mom-proof Abbi’s apartment, (hiding the weed and Plan-B, putting out a menorah and a wine and cheese plate) that Abbi keeps a few details about her life private. I enjoyed the stark contrast to Ilana and her mother, who is basically her open-minded, bubbly twin. Abbi and Ilana are both pretty wild, but Abbi is certainly the more reserved of the two, and now we see where she gets it from.

Abbi pretending to be more conservative than she is doesn’t last long. Joanne tells her that she had a cancer scare this past year and though she’s fine now, it really gave her a new lease on life. She wants to try new things and get a little crazy. Abbi, unsure of how to process all this information, begrudgingly agrees to take her out.

It’s here where Broad City elevates the narrative beyond the typical “good girl has a wild night out” scenario. Yes, Abbi and Joanne do shots, sip martinis, and Abbi even gets her try pot. But things take a turn when she learns her daughter has slept with 32 men and she admits that she’s only ever slept with three.

Her mother’s night out is about more than her having a new lease on life. She’s in a depressive midlife crisis, and she’s realizing she may have wasted some of her best years by following all the rules. Joanne is played by Frasier‘s Peri Gilpin, whose fantastic, understated performance sells both her yearning to cut loose and her regret over having not done it sooner. When she says, “I wish I fucked up more,” it’s heartbreaking, and it also puts a lot of Abbi and Ilana’s shenanigans in a new light. Yes, they do some ridiculous things, but they’re lucky that they have the freedom to make mistakes.

Joanne’s admission feels wholly authentic, but Broad City isn’t just here to talk about the perils of playing it too safe. Abbi and her mom end things on a high note, with her mom getting the chance to make out with one of the waitstaff at their restaurant, and then going to a sex shop to buy a vibrator. Joanne’s excitement at both of these things is infectious, and her night out ends up being invigorating, and way more of a bonding experience with Abbi than whatever she originally had planned.

While Abbi is helping her mom get her groove back, Ilana is dealing with a depression of the clinical variety. The show has mentioned before that her character takes antidepressants, but this is the first time it’s really delved in to her mental illness. In the beginning of the episode, Ilana mentions that she has Seasonal Affective Disorder, which heightens her depression during the winter. She’s been trying to lower her dosage of her meds, so to combat it she uses a SAD lamp. Unfortunately, Ilana needs a lot of SAD lamp time in order to feel balanced, and her restaurant decides to simultaneously get rid of anyone who isn’t making enough tips.

For a plotline about someone constantly needing a light source to pick themselves up, there’s a surprising amount of enjoyable material here. First, the ever-entertaining RuPaul returns as her sassy boss Marcel and he’s amazing in every scene he’s in. Second, as the effectiveness of the SAD lamp starts to wane throughout her shift, she starts to intensify it to absurd proportions. A spare closet ends up becoming a tinfoil covered lightbox that temporarily causes a power outage in the whole restaurant. Each more extreme version of the SAD lamp is funnier than the last.

Third, and perhaps the most important, is the show’s treatment of Ilana’s depression as a real medical illness and not something you can just push through. The show uses very particular editing techniques whenever Ilana starts to crash, so we’re pulled in to her numbed state of consciousness. Her voice sounds distant and echo-y, and the camera often sinks with her to show her getting pulled back down. Ilana is a typically upbeat and talkative person, but illness gives her a profound sense of malaise.

Ilana’s plotline also ends on a high note, with her deciding that the SAD lamp alone isn’t going to cut it and that she needs to increase her meds in the winter. It’s a matter-of-fact decision that stated briefly and without any judgement (and while she’s with Abbi and Joanne in a sex shop), and the honesty of it is very refreshing.

Some people need a wild night out to life up their spirits and other people have a chemical imbalance in their brains and need medicine to make them better. Broad City‘s portrayal of both of these types of depression managed to be moving while still remaining true to what the show is all about. It’s safe to say these ladies walked their tightrope with aplomb. Grade: A-

 

Some Other Notes:

  • Ilana is attracted to Abbi’s mom, and it’s the least surprising thing about the episode.
  • I’d love to see more episodes with Ilana’s waiter co-workers. They each had small moments this week that were hilarious and I could honestly watch a whole half-hour about them.
  • Ilana’s lightning bolt earrings are amazing.
  • I automatically like any Broad City episode where Abbi’s blue dress makes an appearance. You know shit’s about to go down when that thing comes out.

 

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