BROAD CITY’S “WITCHES” IS A TRIBUTE TO MENTAL HEALTH, WOMEN & THE FEMALE ORGASM

One of the most notable things about Broad City’s fourth season is not its take on the political climate, but how it has affected Abbi (Jacobson) and Ilana (Glazer). Abbi’s stress manifests itself in something as subtle as a grey hair, Ilana on the other hand has a full on allergic reaction to what’s going on around her. She seems to have sunken into a depression so bad, she has lost her will to twerk and, while we still get glimpses of her former, buzzing, chaotic self, her energetic “Yass Queens” have dimmed as much as the healing powers of her SAD lamp (“Abbi’s Mom”).   

It’s good to see shows like Broad City, You’re the Worst, Girls and Bojack Horseman working mental health issues into their narrative in an honest, relatable and, above all, non-judgemental manner. In normalizing the topic writers are breaking the stigma surrounding depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc. and are recognizing these, often debilitating, illnesses for what they are. The season opener, “Sliding Doors”, already alluded to Ilana having suffered from bouts of depression in the past, but to experience someone like her, someone who usually goes about her days with such joie de vivre, struggling to stay on her feet for pure mental exhaustion was another well-needed reminder that not even the toughest, outwardly confident and happy people are immune to the shapeshifter that is depression.

“Witches” was Jacobson’s directorial debut and my favourite episode of the season – possibly the series – so far, as it dives even deeper into exploring the effects of depression, particularly on women. Ilana is acting peculiar. She is lying about her plans and is fuelled by irritability and a strangely aggressive sexual energy. Although Abbi wants to be supportive of her BFF, she is clearly uncomfortable in Ilana’s dry-humping vicinity and is relieved to see her go about her secretive business. Determined to get the cash to pay for a space heater, Abbi sets up a stall with handmade Christmas cards in front of the Met. She gets to chatting to Margo (Jane Curtin), an older lady – a fellow witch, as Ilana would describe a wise, powerful woman – who immediately recognizes a kindred spirit in Abbi. They share more in common than Abbi is comfortable with – their preferred Tupperware brand, winter wardrobes and, worst of all, their carts – magnifying her fear of aging prematurely.

Meanwhile, Ilana timidly enters the apartment of sex therapist Betty (Marcella Lowery), where she is invited to sit back and study her vulva. For someone like Ilana, a self-professed Cum-Queen who leaves a cum-trail wherever she goes – “kinda like a slutty-slug” –, not being able to orgasm is cause for an identity crisis. Her sexuality is a huge part of who she is and now that things seem to be malfunctioning down-under, she feels completely disconnected. As it turns out, having upped her dose of anti-depressants and living in a country ruled by a “human skin tag” has caused her to suffer from “Trump-related pussy constipation”. Whenever she tries to relax into masturbating or sex, she is plagued by images of Trump, all the garbage that has ever spilled out of his filthy gob playing on a loop. Her mindset is presented to the audience in the form of a disturbing montage capturing the hostility Trump projects onto women and minority figures in America. Betty gently coaxes Ilana, urging her to stay in the moment as she works her “Abbi” with a dildo, but Ilana just can’t focus.

I usually get a giggle or two out of Ilana’s goofy sex-faces, but all I felt was her deep frustration and helplessness. The complexity of the female orgasm is hardly ever discussed, let alone depicted on TV – at least not from a woman’s perspective – and by exploring the depths of Ilana’s pussy constipation, Broad City finds the connection between orgasms and mental health. As Betty puts it, “Orgasms are a journey, they start in the mind”, and if the mind is troubled and emotions are raw, no wand, no matter how magical, is going to break the curse of the broken pussy. If the mind is broken the pussy won’t purr; it’s as simple as that. Bar the obvious punch lines, male TV characters experiencing whatever form of erectile dysfunction are generally met with empathy – and a Viagra gag –, but even through sarcastic remarks and trouser-tent-humour the emasculating effects on a guy are still very much acknowledged. For female characters there is no magic pill to lighten the load – literally and in terms of narrative –, making it too intimidating a territory to explore for most writers. “Witches” proved that the female orgasm, in all its capriciousness, is just as worthy of consideration.

Ilana is about to give up, but Betty encourages her to look deep inside herself and try to find a way to rise above the patriarchy that has traumatized her vagina. Taking a deep breath, Ilana settles in for another try and finally manages to keep her focus on her biggest inspirations, her greatest turn-ons: fierce, fearless women who have risen above and beyond a society ruled by sexist pigs, women who stand up for the rights of others, women who will not be silenced. A picture montage of women as diverse as Michelle Obama, Mindy Kaling, the cast of Sex and the City and The Golden Girls flickers through her mind and on our screens as she channels the “ferocious female current that is just constantly zip-zap-zopping around the universe like the speed of light” and finally – she “bazingas”. Hard.

Abbi, still freaked about the fact she has begun sprouting grey hairs before having the wardrobe, bank statements and lifestyle to match, is having a pretty rough day herself. She's feeling pressure from all sides: her former crush Jeremy (Stephen Schneider), who is now in a committed relationship, adopted child and all, and can afford to fork out $100 for her cards without even flinching; Margo, who went to the same art school as her and is still selling her work on the streets; and finally, a park avenue dermatologist in her fifties who looks no older than twenty. Instead of investing in her declaration of independence – a space heater bought with her own money –, she decides to blow her cash on a Botox injection.

As soon as the needle is inserted in her cheek, she regrets her decision. Looking around the room, she takes in all the posters advertising skin-whitening. She watches her dermatologist panic over having cracked a smile for fear of popping a wrinkle, and listens to her describe her beauty regime as a full-time job. Suddenly, Abbi realizes she has become a victim of a society pressuring women to conform to unrealistic, misogynist ideals and to serve to be sexualized, one that prosecutes those who do not fit the mould, much like it did back in the day – only now, we're not referred to as witches. Now, they call us bitches, perhaps because they have finally realized that to be a witch is to be powerful, and if you fuck with one witch, you're fucking with a whole sisterhood of bad-ass witches by proxy. Because, as Michelle Obama put it, “when they go low, we go high.”

Broad City has always been about sisterhood at its core, but “Witches” was a global summoning, an invitation to bare your boobs, love your wrinkles, your grey hair and your “Abbi”, take back your womanhood and your sexuality and shatter the Human Skin Tag Tower with the roar of the ferocious female current that is your orgasm – hit ‘em with what scares them most. Abbi and Ilana let it be known they will no longer use their broomsticks to sweep up the mess their country has turned into; they’re using them to fight back and whoop ass. And so should you.

THIS IS US: “STILL THERE” EXPLORES RACISM AND THE NON-CONVENTIONAL FAMILY UNIT

It’s been two weeks since Deja (Lyric Ross) came into Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Beth’s (Susan Kelechi Watson) lives, and “Still There” gave us a good understanding of how things have been going so far. Randall, Beth and their adorable daughters, Tess (Eris Baker) and Annie (Faithe Herman), have shown her nothing but love, patience and understanding. And yet, try as they might, they just can’t get her to open up. She has lived an entire, unstable life before coming into their home and Randall and Beth can only imagine what she has been through. She refuses to wash her hair. She flinches when Randall raises his voice and prepares to be kicked to the curb whenever she makes a mistake. But she is still there. Randall and Beth did not “give her back”. They are still there, and they’ll continue to be there for as long as she needs them.

Whether you are the one entering a new family, or the one welcoming a new member into a tight-knit clan, it’s an entirely new territory for both parties and the grounds need to be tested first. Deja has been in and out of foster homes her entire life and, based on her reactions so far, was never made to feel like she was welcome to stay in any of them. She can sense she has found a sanctuary in the Pearson’s home but in trying to shield herself from further pain and disappointment, she cannot relax into the experience. Every now and then we get to see a glimpse of hope in her eyes as Beth and Randall continue to try and coax her out of her shell by planning a fun day at the bowling alley, or braiding her hair, but these moments are fleeting. Randall and Beth desperately want her to feel she belongs – that it’s not “the little mamas and Deja”, but that Deja is one of their little mamas too, and there should be no distinction in that.

Randall knows what it’s like to feel like an outsider within your own family. As a black boy growing up in a white family, it was only natural for him to feel a sense of otherness, but it never caused his adoptive parents to treat him any differently from their biological twins, Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Kevin (Justin Hartley). Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Rebecca’s mother, Janet (Elizabeth Perkins). Whenever she would come to visit Rebecca and the kids, she let it be known through subtle actions and wording, that she felt a clear detachment between the twins and Randall. She never referred to them as a pack – i.e. the kids – but two separate parties, and she never tried to truly get to know him, but rather, based her gifts and assumptions on the racial stereotypes she grew up with. Her presents for Kate and Kevin are thoughtful, her gift to Randall – a basketball – a lazy afterthought with a silent, loaded message.

I remember the first time my former step-dad’s mother came to visit for Christmas. We had never particularly warmed to each other. To her, a sixty-year-old woman who had grown up in the English countryside and still held on to Victorian ideals, my fourteen-year-old, pink haired, multiple-pierced self was a like specimen from a different planet. She did not know how to interact with me, nor did she try too hard – just enough for it not to be super obvious. What was super obvious however, was her choices of gifts. While my brother – her biological grandson – was showered in a sea of brightly coloured, irritatingly noisy gifts that made his eyes sparkle, I was handed one little parcel containing a pair of left-handed scissors. Have I mentioned I am right-handed?

My former step-dad made no effort to point out how much of a low-blow that was. But my mum did. The next year, the ex-step-granny sent me a hand-knitted, multi-coloured scarf so long, I could have wrapped my entire body in it. I took the length of this present as a direct measure of her guilt.

I imagine Randall felt the same when he was handed a basketball for the third year in a row, but just as I did, he did his best to hide his disappointment. Unlike me, he wasn’t aware of why he was being treated differently to Kate and Kevin, though he figured it may have been down to the fact he was adopted. I knew the reason why my ex-step-granny couldn’t accept me, or my mother for that matter, was down to cultural differences – we had completely different outlooks on life, the world and, especially, the people in it. But at nine-years-old, Randall was still too young to understand the subtle undertones of racism and xenophobia.

When Rebecca calls Janet out on her thinly disguised racism, she is met by an avalanche of excuses – “You have to understand, I grew up in a very different time,” and “it just all feels really foreign to me” – none of which can, or ever will, justify her attitudes. Rebecca knows that it is exactly this kind of generational divide that will carry on into her son’s future if no one ever steps up to educate an old dog who refuses to learn new tricks.

When you accept a child as your own, there can be no distinctions between biological or adopted, white or black, because if you do, you will never create a sense of belonging. It’s up to past generations to set a good example for generations to follow, but if we hold on to our “back in my day” attitudes they will carry into our future and prevent effective change from happening. 

 

 

 

BETTER THINGS AND THE MANY MASKS MOTHERS WEAR

Considering the episode’s title, “Sick”, and its comic-cum-tragic opening, it would have been easy to assume this episode was going to centre around Phil (Celia Imrie) and whatever ailment that has caused her to piddle on a book shop’s floor in the worst possible moment. Confronted with a young boy wearing a cape and a fake moustache, Phil relishes in a rare moment of eerie superiority that would never have the same effect on Sam and her grandchildren.

This strange kid takes her seriously as she questions his fake moustache’s motives, his eyes growing bigger and more afraid with every taunting minute. But as is usually the case for Phil, she ends up being the source of ridicule and pity rather than respect when the young boy watches the urine trickle from under her yellow skirt, his expression as confused and shocked as her own.

Embarrassed and startled, Phil ushers Sam – who was oblivious to the situation – out of the bookshop, happy to forget any of this ever happened. Like a child desperate to hide another bed-wetting accident for fear of disappointing its parents, Phil hides her muddled mental state from her daughter and grandchildren for fear of becoming a burden. Something isn’t quite right with Phil, but for the moment, it’s not her who is sick. It’s Sam.

Sam is showing all the classic signs of lovesickness, only hers operates on a level a lot more complex than the opera of inexpressible emotions a teen might feel for an unrequited crush. She’s distracted, anxious, moody and frightened of the possibility of embarking on something real. She has gotten so good at being alone, at constantly putting aside her own life and feelings in favour of her children, she has entirely forgotten what it feels like to confront herself as an individual. Robin (Henry Thomas), the source of her heartache, has thrown her for a complete loop.

Like most mothers, Sam does not have the luxury to be inconsiderate; that is a task best left to her teenaged girls Max (Mikey Madison) and Frankie (Hannah Alligood). When the kids find their family dog, Daisy, dead on the floor, Frankie and Max are quick to tell their mother what must be done, but they don’t pause for a second to mourn the animal, or check in with how Sam is handling the morbid discovery on her hallway carpet. The only one still capable of showing empathy is Duke (Olivia Edward), the youngest of the bunch. She sweetly explains she needs some time alone, but not before asking Sam if she’s OK and patting her on the head.

Whether she’s dealing with a dead dog, an asshole ex-husband, a difficult mother or a thirty-year-old Spanish Casanova dating her sixteen-year-old daughter – Sam is forced to bite through the pain, anger and disappointment in a bid to stay strong for her daughters, so the prospect of allowing herself to fully feel and react in a manner that is not edited, and does not downplay her inner turmoil, is downright terrifying.   

Teen love is exciting – albeit it nauseatingly so -, adventurous and new. Adult love is swapping emotional baggage and deciding whether you have the muscle to carry the weight of another person’s brick-filled suitcase on top of the load you are already carrying with three kids, a mother and an unspecified number of dogs to care for. And it’s something Sam isn’t sure she’s ready for.

When Frankie invites her dad – Sam’s estranged husband – over for dinner, Sam can only bare to agree through gritted teeth. Of course, she wants her kids to have a good relationship with their father, but it causes her a great deal of distress, not only on a personal level, but in terms of what his rare and impromptu visits do to her daughters – each time he swings by they are filled with hope, only to be let down again. But as always, Sam keeps her mask fastened on tightly, and simply picks up the pieces whenever shit hits the fan again.

 And yet, while watching Max gently rest her head on her father’s shoulder as he plays the piano, and Duke contently smiling at her, Sam realizes that, perhaps, moments like this might be worth taking a risk for – as petrifying as it might be.

YOU’RE THE WORST AND THE DANGERS OF REVISITING NOSTALGIC TERRITORIES

In its fourth season, Stephen Falk’s You’re the Worst still hasn’t lost its knack for hitting its audience with emotionally stunted characters and storylines we never knew we needed until we found ourselves relating to them on levels that are as worrying as they are comforting. Worrying, because relating to the likes of “Shitty” Jimmy (Chris Greer) and Gretchen (Aya Cash), suggests we too are stuck in a self-destructive spiral of denial; refreshing, because the show seems to emphasize what we already know but rarely get to see on TV: that we’re not alone in this.

We’re not alone in staring into the mirror, trying to connect our thirty-year-old bodies with our sixteen-year-old ability to feel – so hard – especially in reaction to extreme heartache. We’re not alone in shutting off our vulnerability to those around us for fear of getting hurt. And we’re definitely not alone in being assholes, or, at the very least, shapeshifters.

A lot has happened since Jimmy left Gretchen stranded on top of a hill after having just proposed marriage to her. And as much as I hate him for having planned the perfect, murderous proposal only to devastate her upon accepting it, I hate myself even more for understanding what drove him to bail on her – which isn’t to say I excuse his behaviour.

Season four’s opening double-episode, “It’s Been”, was a study of hiding tactics with both Jimmy and Gretchen desperately attempting to simply forget – themselves and each other. While Gretchen urged her feelings to dissipate in a haze of weed, meth and junk-food induced farts, Jimmy took a more literal approach to hiding. Going completely off-grid in a trailer-park retirement community, he has opted to match his desolate surroundings to his emotional wasteland, and avoids his personal truths by blanketing them in monotony.

Befriending the community grump, Bert (Raymond J. Berry), Jimmy slowly finds himself waking up to the, suddenly very real, possibility of ending up just like his new friend: old, alone, miserable, and clinging on to a life-time of anger brought on by even more regrets.

This season scrapes at its protagonist’s wounds, exposing the rawness that makes up the flesh of their beings. We come to understand them now, no longer as festering ulcers of supressed trauma, but as gurgling pools of obvious confusion and pain, spurting out of old war-lesions, vicious and cold, as if the veins through which these toxic concoctions of human emotions pulse, are already dead. Jimmy and Gretchen are engaging in an excruciatingly lonely game of pretence that only leaves losers in its wake.

While Jimmy throws himself into a naively optimistic future, Gretchen seeks shelter in the past. By going back to Ty (Stephen Schneider) in “Odysseus”, she is trying to revert to her former, non-attached self, happy to be unhappy as long it spares her from opening herself to others, and entering something meaningful.

It’s a skilled, masochistic practise many of us perfect in the aftermaths of a particularly cruel break-up: going back to something you already know is bad for you, is safer than searching for something bad that may end up being good. Like Boone (Colin Ferguson), whom she gladly fucks because she assumes he’s married. Upon finding out he’s not, shit gets entirely too real for her. But just as she is about to bolt, she realizes it may be time for her to let people in and grants Boone the chance to try.

Edgar (Desmin Borges) and Lindsay’s (Kether Donohue) new relationship informs what this season is truly about: finding (back to) yourself, and losing what connected you to your old friends in the process. Lindsay has finally come to stand on her own two feet, with an exciting new job and her own apartment to show for it. Edgar is thriving as a comedy writer, and is finding back to his former self after particularly difficult, and continuing episodes of PTSD.

Previously, Gretchen and Jimmy may have been considered the adults on the show – if only due to their respective professional statuses – but the roles have reversed. Now it’s Edgar and Lindsay who no longer have time for Jimmy and Gretchen’s immature take on work ethics, relationships and life in general. They have outgrown the two people who, up until now, always cast them in their supposedly superior shadow, and it’s as scary as it is liberating to loosen the bonds of their most intimate, if not outdated, relationships.

Jimmy and Gretchen may not be entirely aware of it yet, but without Lindsay and Edgar to look to for constant support, they don’t really have a lot of other prospects where friendships are concerned. Jimmy goes as far as to – in true, shitty style – down right refute Edgars attempts at bonding with him on a profound, grown-up level, and Gretchen is too wrapped up in herself to care about Lindsay’s troubles with winning her work-colleagues over as friends.

When Gretchen returns to her parental home to welcome her nephew into the world, a box of childhood memories has her dredging up the past and contemplating her present self, and unrealistic future. In “Not the Best Bet”, the strongest episode of the season so far, Gretchen finds herself clinging on to dangerously nostalgic territories to escape her current situation.

Entering her paternal home, she immediately hides beneath her hoodie. A sign of her obvious discomfort as she finds herself in familiar limbo – stuck between feeling obligated to play the role of the sweetly catastrophic daughter, and wanting to own her adult self. Although she has returned home to celebrate a family moment, she cannot bring herself to be with them for it would mean honing a caricature of her real identity. Instead, she heads to the local Roller Rink to rekindle her friendship with Heidi (Zosia Mamet), her former BFF who survived childhood leukaemia.  

Initial catch-up chatter is somewhat stiff as Gretchen fishes for common ground, but the only thing they truly seem to share, is the fact that neither of them feel their respective lives are what they thought they would be. Sat in the parking lot looking out on the apocalyptic shopping centre that was once home to many a teenage milestone event – Heidi got her ears pierced here while Gretchen got fingered for the first time in the changing room of a fashion shop – they reminisce about the days in which hanging out at a shopping mall was still a thing. Now it’s nothing but a luxurious hangout for meth heads, stray dogs and partying teenagers – and even the teenagers have changed.

Entering the desolate mall armed with booze and smokes, they find a group of junior high schoolers whining about how stressful it is to be a millennial, what, with all the constant bombardment of information and advertisement. The roles are established naturally, with the two thirty-year-olds exercising peer pressure on their younger counterparts in a game of truth or dare. They spend the kind of night together that would have left them reeling with naïve excitement back when they were sixteen, but in the cold light of the dawning morning, Heidi sees it for what it was: a pathetic attempt at escaping adult life, if even for a moment.

Gretchen warned the teenaged mall rats about the fact that “grown up stuff sucks” and that it’s “all downhill from here,” but unlike Heidi, she is doing nothing to help herself with finding peace in being an adult. In her attempt to find a new beginning with old roots, she merely confronted what she already knew: she is but a visitor in a place that no longer is hers, a visitor in the lives of people who easily like or want her, but never get the chance to know her. There’s no going back for Gretchen, or anyone of us. There’s only the long, scary road ahead.