Performance Check

Broad City, Player Agency, and Storyline Direction

Four and three and two and one.

One of my favorite shows on TV right now is a show about young female friends in New York. They navigate the challenges of jobs, money, relationships, and feminism, examining some of the finer points of the city. The show goes to great effort to tackle subjects generally considered taboo and push the envelope whenever possible. It isn’t ever preachy or pushy; it’s just about friends hanging out and reaching for the stars…and failing in hilarious fashion. No, it’s not Girls, It’s Broad City.

If you have never seen Broad City, your fear of missing out, #FOMO, is justified. This show is top to bottom brilliant. Currently in its third season, it’s easy enough to legitimately watch the first two seasons, and they are fairly short. Each season is only ten episodes, and it’s a half-hour show with commercials, so only 21-23 minutes without the breaks. You could get in two or three episodes on your lunch break, and finish a season in a couple of days. What I am saying is, there isn’t much time investment required to get in on one of the funniest, weirdest, and boldest shows on television.

The show began as a web series written and run by the two leads, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer. Amy Poehler was a big fan of the web series, even appearing in it, and helped advocate for the show before becoming an eventual executive producer. As with a lot of shows from comedians, Abbi and Ilana play heightened versions of themselves. However, in the transition from web series to television series, someone besides the two creators became showrunners for the first season. The result was a very funny show hedging its bets by leaning a bit on common sitcom occurrences, and then often subverting them or showing the absurdity in them. The problem in doing so is the show still had those sitcom constructs and it was limited by the nature of the sitcom. This isn’t to say the first season is bad. Far from it – it’s absolutely hysterical. So it should be no surprise the second season, in which Abbi and Ilana (I call them by their first names because we’re basically best television friends) become showrunners and abandon a lot of the sitcom nature of the show, is flat out glorious.

The relationships of the two leads played a big part in season one. Abbi had a crush on her neighbor and became a bag of jelly around him, and Ilana was a die-hard single girl with only friends with benefits who would never settle down, but she did have a regular FWB she hung out with a lot and kept insisting she wasn’t in a relationship with him. It just so happens her FWB is Lincoln, portrayed by Hannibal Buress, and is the chillest and most understanding dude on the planet. This is all pretty well worn territory, but the show still manages to take it pretty fresh places. If Abbi needing to defecate during a hurricane, which breaks all running water and electricity, while in the apartment of her crush, and beseeching Ilana to help her make her poop disappear after an accident isn’t a departure from the sitcom formula, I don’t know what is.

Becoming the writer, actor, and showrunner for a show could lead to some pretty indulgent results, but the second season is a great case study of why it should be done. The second season takes a sharp detour from the season one trend of relying on recurring secondary characters for hijinks, and puts the onus on the leads. They are Ray Stanz, choosing their own destruction. What’s even better, departure from the safety the sitcom structure allows them to tackle some issues you flat out wouldn’t see elsewhere.



The Al Dentist

In the second season premiere, Abbi and Ilana fight summer in New York. The cold open from the episode is genius-level brilliance. It has several jokes written into it, only revealed after you watch the entire season. I counted four on a repeat viewing, but I probably missed a couple.

For most people, summer means a time without air conditioning. Ilana quips that this weather makes her more exotic, due to her darker complexion, and Abbi laments that she had a date with male Stacy and bemoans her apartment’s lack of air. The two go to various stores just to partake of their AC. How well I know this exact thing. The scene also illustrates how willing the two are to portray themselves as real people. Abbi and Ilana discuss men losing weight to gain visual inches, and Ilana proves she doesn’t know anything about American history.

On her date, male Stacy is cooking a meal for Abbi, something he regrets, and you can see both of them trying to keep it together during the oppressive heat. Abbi mentions she is going to go “clean up”, but only after making it abundantly clear she has a bad case of swamp ass. Male Stacy, fighting the good fight, waits until she leaves the room, and then he crams paper towels down his shorts. When Abbi comes back, she puts the moves on male Stacy, and the two of them adjourn to the bedroom. During the foreplay, male Stacy has a panic moment as he realizes he still has paper towels down his shorts and the short, awkward discussion of this is hilarious.

The cut aways to Ilana during this whole segment show her at a fancy restaurant with Lincoln and some of his friends. Ilana is on a diatribe against rape culture, with all of the other people at the table nodding knowingly. She begins discussing Frozen, saying that all Hollywood movies are porn, and all porn is kiddie porn. Just after she says everything is rape culture, she excuses herself to go to the little girl’s room. She pauses for a minute, incredulous at herself; even saying little girl’s room is rape culture. When returns, she realizes she is at Lincoln’s birthday. Returning to Abbi, she and Stacy begin to have relations, but male Stacy overheats and passes out with Abbi on top of him.

This would probably be treated pretty lightly in a sitcom, kicked around for humor and resolved in some way. Ilana, however, calls Abbi a rapist. Abbi says he passed out from the heat, and he really wanted it. Ilana says “that is what they say.” Abbi says she means it, and Ilana says “so do they.” Abbi says she raped male Stacy and seeks out AC again, heading into Bed, Bath, and Beyond to buy an air conditioner.

Throughout these scenes, Ilana keeps looking for gifts for Lincoln, revealing she doesn’t know much about him. She grows upset that Abbi knows more about him, such as the fact he has a blog called the Al Dente Dentist, where Lincoln discusses pasta and food. Ilana, after my own heart, points out that this is a missed opportunity to be called the Al Dentist. Her jealousy over Abbi knowing more about Lincoln is immediately parlayed into gags about Abbi going to Bed, Bath, and Beyond too often.  Ilana grows increasingly jealous, as she realizes Abbi has elaborate handshakes with all of the staff, lamenting that she doesn’t do elaborate shakes with her. Abbi and Ilana buy the AC, only to have it stolen, and turn to posting on Facebook to try and get a free AC. Here, you witness another departure from the first season.

One of the responses is from a friend of Bevers, the boyfriend of Abbi’s never-seen roommate, who is an all around terrible person. Instead of drawing him into the story, it’s a flash to Bevers lying naked on Abbi’s bed, eating and spilling icecream on it, and not cleaning it up. It’s a short use of Bevers, maximum comedy and minimum involvement. In season one, he probably would have ended up dragged along for the ride. Wisely, his involvement is largely limited in season two, as are all the secondary characters.

Going to meet the person, Abbi’s encounter with male Stacy is brought up again by Ilana, stating she wouldn’t feel comfortable in this neighborhood normally, but she’s with a stone cold rapist.  She goes on to say she is proud of Abbi for “raping rape culture.” The girls are treated to Bevers’ friend, played by the amazing Kumail Nanjiani, who is equally as terrible as Bevers. He gets the girls to move stuff for him as he films an audition for the Amazing Race. Afterwards, the girls realize he has a broken AC, not a working one, and the scenes of them getting angry are amazing. Even more so because Nanjiani isn’t fazed in the least.

Ilana then takes Abbi to her old college, where she graduated recently. Ilana’s views on adoption are brought up, as she turns the AC into a political statement. Abbi refuses to engage, and Ilana agrees this is the right course of action. Ilana tries to sneak Abbi in, and goes through several fake outrages with the security guard, saying he’s a homophobe, then he doesn’t like straight people, then he’s oppressing minorities. The security guard just doesn’t care.

Abbi and Ilana then perform a hilarious good cop/bad cop routine trying to convince the people in the room they are RAs, in order to get the AC. In a brilliant move, Ilana uncovers the weed she hid in the wall, using it as leverage over the kids. It’s also revealed the girls have no idea about RAs. However, instead of just getting out of there with the AC, the girls smoke the entire bag as weed to “teach the kids about the dangers of drugs.” Some stoner talk follows, which is always great, but it results in Abbi making out with one of the kids, before realizing he was still in high school. Ilana, in a great one-liner, is grossed out by the word capitalist. Abbi leaves, horrified she “did it again.” However, they do manage to take the AC, and the meal pass of the capitalist, which Ilana gives to Lincoln as a present. Lincoln, ever chill, says it’s a great present, as he works right by there.

On the way back, as Abbi berates herself, Ilana chimes in. She says, “Ok, you made out with an underage kid, you finished a couple of seconds after a dude passed out. You’re a sex offender, at worst. Welcome to the club.”

The episode then ends with an amazing kitten callback. I don’t know how else to describe it.

As you might expect, this episode ruffled just about every feather possible for a lot of columnists and politicos. Whatever, Mel Brooks turned the Holocaust into a hilariously inappropriate film about musicals, creativity, culture, and Hollywood. Humor has long been used to undercut the power of oppression. It flips a vital piece of oppression, humiliation, on its head. When it’s out of the hands the people who make it real, it is a very different tool. It’s not really hard to understand. Why else would we love quippy heroes who zing bad guys? Hulk smash puny god is seeing something like this in action.

On a selfish note, in the spirit of Abbi and Ilana, this also goes back to my first article, discomfort and black comedy.



I Love You, Bingo Bronson.

I know the above is a long analysis of a single episode, but one I hope illustrates just how non-formulaic the show became. If you need more examples of how the show flourished when the control went to the two leads and writers, you don’t have to look very far. In the third episode, Abbi has her wisdom teeth removed. This does the excellent thing of showing us Abbi trusts Lincoln as her dentist, and you get Ilana at her most paranoid, possessive, inappropriate, and irresponsible.

After taking Abbi home, and getting to witness her amazing Drew Barrymore impression, Ilana begins to “care” for Abbi. She immediately mismanages the pain medication, and then makes Abbi a firecracker, basically a ridiculous marijuana mudslide. Abbi takes her stuffed cartoon character, Bingo Bronson, around New York, imagining him as a life-sized companion. While this is a crazy, zany scenario, the real joke here is that all Abbi does is go to Whole Foods and live out a fantasy where she can buy all the health food.

The episode also show cases the fear of “changing neighborhoods” within New York, mostly referred to as gentrification. Abbi meets this change with glee, dumping thousands of dollars worth of health food into her cart, something also done to showcase the cost of a place like Whole Foods. Ilana, however, meets the Whole Food with disgust. How dare her neighborhood change like this?

This episode puts the girls largely on their own, and gets to sing all the more as a result. Never once do the girls come off as looking like responsible, functional adults, but it’s because they aren’t. The second season shows go out of their way to show this over and over again. Not a single time does this turn into a scenario where the leads become successful people engaging with beautiful people. Nor does it devolve into a place of one-note portrayals. The show is richer for being in the hands of the people acting in it. Agency is a powerful thing.



Agency and Engagement

Player agency is one of the most hotly debated topics in gaming, in my experience. There are arguments all the time against “railroading”, forcing players to follow a single path, a rising sentiment against “illusion of choice”, offering players multiple paths and just moving any planned events to the chosen path. A vocal subsection clamor for a “sandbox experience”, a term used to describe games, usually video games, without a specific story. Instead, they rely on exploration and often creation, as opposed to a “theme park experience”, where players play within defined boundaries. This is hardly an exhaustive list of game styles, and is meant to be more illustrative than instructive.

No matter the style of game you ultimately run or play, you likely experience the same second major topic in gaming: player engagement. How do you get everyone at the table to remain observant when they are taking no action, how do you get people to take action, and how do you get people to stay in-world when they are at the table? Much as with agency, everyone has an opinion on how best to handle these questions, and they will often be at odds with each other.

I’ve been thinking about these two topics a lot, as I have been running games for an online group now for nearly a year. As players have joined or left, the group has often asked for the game to start anew, with a different setting and different characters. The players are a mix of fresh-to-D&D faces, players with some experience, and players with a lot of experience. There were several causes to this, but some background helps to frame the choices in some context.

In the first failed game, the group found themselves with something of a cold open in a Ravenloft micro-domain. The group roundly wanted to experience some gothic horror, but found they were sort of uncomfortable with it in action, and never went to great pains to get their party dynamic to mesh at all. There was no group forming, storming, and norming. The party remained slightly at odds, and the overall tension in the setting proved a little cloying. As the game is online, keeping people engaged is a little trying. I tried several things: table silence during combat, gentle check-ins, some breaks, all sorts of things, but it just didn’t work out well.

We had two players leave and two join, so the group wanted a more cohesive group and a more lighthearted setting. Based on one of the backgrounds, the group decided to work for a wizard who often on errands, and the group all knew each other. The group often traveled the planes performing minor works for the wizard, which worked in a Planescape setting. The group had a great time, there were multiple sessions of bureaucratic adventures in Mechanus, but some members were not really familiar with Planescape and couldn’t really fathom the departure from standard D&D play it represents. Angels and Devils drinking in a bar was really messing with them. This is to say nothing with how necromancy, necromancers, or undead were treated. It was just too weird and too much. The player engagement was sorta better in the second game, but there was still a dissonance between what the players were doing, their characters, and their group dynamic.

We had a player drop out and two others join, so the group wanted to try something different. This time around, they opted for some sand and sorcery. Rather than repeat the same things not working, I asked them to try something different. I ran two full length character creation sessions. The first was really diving into the setting with them in terms of feel, themes, races, magic, and societies, and the second was creating a relationship map to be the driving focus of the game.



What’s the Relationship, Kenneth?

This was lifted largely from the Smallville roleplaying game, though I disassociated it from any character attributes or progression. I also had the group come up with a shared background story. They selected two additional skills based on their role in the shared story, and the rest helped determine their social standing as a family unit, which is a big part of sand-and-sorcery play. The relationship map featured each character name in a box, with each box linked. We then did a serpentine order for rounds, filling out the map. Overall the process looked like:

Round 1: Character to NPC (new)

Round 2: Character to Location (new), NPC/Location to NPC/Location

Round 3: NPC/Location to Any, PC to ANY (New)/PC to ANY (Existing)

Round 4: ANY to PC

Round 5: PC to ANY (new)/PC to ANY (Existing), ANY to PC

Round 6: PC to ANY (new)/PC to ANY (Existing)

Round 7: NPC/Location to ANY, PC to NPC/LOC (existing)

Round 8: ANY to PC

Round 9: NPC/Location to Any

When you create a new box, or link to an existing box, describe the relationship of the object you are going from to the object you are going toward. For example, if I am playing Jonas the Apiarist, I could link myself to Hilda the Honey Merchant in the first round, introducing Hilda as a new NPC, and describe my relationship to her as “provides honey to”, making her a merchant contact for me. Players can then link themselves to Hilda in the future, and describe their own relationship to her, negative or positive.

The guiding rule is that you cannot decide how another character feels about something. Another table rule we had was to make sure the player was comfortable with what you were doing with their character. You don’t want to say someone has a crush on the character if the player isn’t comfortable with it, as an example.

What resulted was a glorious spider web of people, places, and relationships, created by the players. Since each player had a hand in the story of the other players, and could help define street-level locations in the city, generally stuff not covered by setting material anyway, the theory is that players will be more engaged with the stuff others are doing, as they helped create the content. This creates a meshwork meant to fit over any story and world-building done by the GM. It’s not for every group, but for this group it has worked like gangbusters. The players created villains for themselves, there were some good twists, an inn became a boat when a player linked an NPC to it and declared “captain of” as the relationship, and there are tons of story hooks available.

The players also know they are not making their lives easier. They could have built in relationships to make everything in their favor, but the players want conflict and adventure, and the relationship map not only reflects their desires, but increased the drive to add more things full of potential conflict based on the group’s reactions.



Fear of a Player Planet

In Broad City, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer never make their lives easier in their writing or their plotting. They do, however, provide themselves with an authentic voice that would be impossible with someone else as showrunner. They are not the only writers of the show; they make the decisions. If someone else writes a Broad City episode, as is the case with the Bingo Bronson episode, actually, the showrunners determine if the story matches the established themes.This is not dissimilar from the above planning session.

The players went out of their way to tell me what they care about, and to create a web of conflict and relationships for themselves. As the GM I do my best to ensure the story I tell leans on this web as often as possible, and with meaningful impact. The players are like the showrunners in this case, as they have given me the things I need to include, but I have license to tell any stories I want as long as it includes those things. Not every storyline resonates for every player, of course, but a lot of engagement comes from simple things like, “Oh! We are friends with a jewel merchant, let’s find out if he has gotten any shady people in recently. I know I am not generally involved with crime, but I am involved in our upfront deals.” This is obviously sort of a best case crossover, but you get my drift.

Giving the players more control, with some framework and guidelines, has really worked for my online group, and the game is as successful as it has ever been. While there are certainly well-founded fears, sometimes taking a big risk pays off. The second season of Broad City and my own campaign are proof.