Alternative Pathway to Television: Negotiating Female Representation in Broad City’s Transition from YouTube to Cable




Web series, television, gender

How to Cite

Glover, B. (2017). Alternative Pathway to Television: Negotiating Female Representation in <em>Broad City</em>’s Transition from YouTube to Cable. M/C Journal, 20(1).
Vol. 20 No. 1 (2017): alternative
Published 2017-03-15


For both consumers and creators, Web series have been viewed for some time as an appealing alternative to television series. As Alice explains, creating content for the Web was once seen as “a last resort” for projects that were unable to secure funding for television production (59). However, the Web has, in recent years, become a “legitimized” space, allowing Web series to be considered a media platform capable of presenting narratives of various genres (Alice 59). Moreover, due to the lack of restrictions and overheads placed on Web producers, it is argued that there is more capacity to take risks in Web series and thus depict “a broader array of stories” (Christian, “The Web” 352). 

Nevertheless, television still remains the traditional mode of storytelling, and for many producers, it is still an “object of desire” (Christian, “The Web” 352). Emerging producers still see television as the ultimate “end goal”,  leaving the Web as a sufficient platform that will allow them to create something. Alternatively, for many established creators, the Web is understood to be a stage upon which they can tell stories television would perhaps never consider. Regardless of why creators are attracted to the Web, the platform has indeed cemented its place as an alternative in the television media landscape. 

For Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, the Web, or more specifically, YouTube, provided an unbridled space for their creativity when nowhere else would. The two comediennes co-wrote and starred in their Web series, Broad City, back in 2009, and it has since been picked up by Comedy Central and successfully turned into a television series. The fourth season is set to air in August 2017. Both versions of the series follow two twenty-something women, Abbi Abrams and Ilana Wexler (played by Jacobson and Glazer respectively), as they explore themselves, and New York City. Broad City is one of the few Web series to be picked up as a television series and maintain its success; an impressive accomplishment, no matter how legitimate Web series have become. However, the unwavering devotion maintained by the television series to continue depicting millennial women in the same fashion as the Web series is, arguably, more impressive. With a focus on Broad City’s depiction of its two eccentric protagonists, this article explores how the transitions from Web to television are negotiated. In the case of Broad City, I contend that its unconventional start as a web series is what allows the television series to continue depicting contemporary womanhood honestly.  

Taking the Alternate Path: YouTube

Defined as “scripted, episodic and experimental videos made for the internet”, Web episodes (or Webisodes) hold many advantages to the traditional television medium (Kornblum; Peirce 317). Aware of these advantages and struggling to be noticed naturally for their work in the sketch comedy group, Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB), Glazer and Jacobson took to the Internet to write and create their own series, Broad City. This trend arose in 2007 during the difficult phase American television when the Writers Guild of America began its fifteen-month strike (De Moraes). During this time, Peirce states that producing a new program for television proved “almost impossible” (315). There was a level of uncertainty plaguing the future of prime-time television, and with budgets being refashioned, reality programs were filling television line-ups more than any other genre of show (Peirce 315). Within this climate, it is unsurprising that the Google-owned video-sharing website, YouTube, quickly became the frontrunner in online video (Christian, “The Web” 351). 

YouTube is argued to be responsible for opening the doors to the next wave of entertainment media, after pledging to give users their own personal video network. Suddenly, amateurs, independents and corporations alike were, for the first time, able to compete against each other in shaping this post-network era of television (Christian, “The Web” 351). Moreover, the premise of “anyone can upload” meant that this era allowed for a new variety of television, in a range of genres and storytelling modes that were once considered untouchable to television networks (Christian, “The Web” 351). 

Evidently, such freedom is appealing to all kinds of online content creators, no matter their status. Established actor, comedian, and writer Louis C.K. most recently joined the Web series movement with his creation Horace and Pete (2016-). The dark comedy is written, directed, and produced entirely by C.K. and he plays the main protagonist, Horace. However, the appeal was not so much the control he would potentially have over the product, but more how the viewers could access it. Upon the release of the pilot episode, C.K. released a statement clarifying why he made a series outside of the television studio system. He explains that he was intrigued by the idea of providing viewers with the newly made show “directly and immediately”, with each episode being posted onto his Website as soon as it is shot. Additionally, C.K. also sought to create a show “without the usual promotion” that, he states, tells the viewer “what the show feels and looks like before you get to see it yourself” (C.K.). 

It is clear that the unique nature of the modern medium provides benefits to creators at all levels. For the Broad City duo, who unlike C.K., had yet to be noticed, YouTube was appealing because it provided them with an outlet through which they could control the product themselves.  Jacobson states, “After a while, we thought, ‘why are we trying to be on something that someone else controls?’” (Paumgarten). 

The Web series commenced in late 2009 and ran until 2011, with each episode ranging anywhere between one and eight minutes. In the thirty-three episodes created, Abbi and Ilana consistently find themselves in awkward and comedic situations while they try to navigate their lives in New York City. These awkward situations vary in their complexity. One episode simply looks at the two protagonists trying to survive riding the subway, while another looks at the issue of being catcalled and objectified by strangers. 

There is no narrative arc in either season, the storylines are simply extracted from the lives of the creators.  Glazer and Jacobson have discussed this in various interviews, explaining that these characters are essentially exaggerations of themselves and the show is a “heightened version” of their dynamic (Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, 2014; Justin; Matthews). As such, Broad City contributes to a well-established trend of comedians impersonating younger, lazier, and poorer versions of themselves. However, since the Web series’ thematic relies so heavily on the experiences and personality traits of the writers, Glazer and Jacobson are more like the characters they portray than the likes of Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon (30 Rock, 2007-2013) or Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath (Girls, 2012-), for example. A result is that the Web series does not seek to provide its viewers with neat conclusions, or have the protagonists grow and evolve over the span of a season. This freedom is only designated to the Web series format, as television viewers – despite not always getting it – yearn for a heartier resolution (DeFino 99). 

Another attribute of video-sharing sites like YouTube is that they allow anyone to share anything they create, regardless of the budget. The two seasons of Broad City, the Web series, are written, created, and produced by Glazer and Jacobson primarily. As they were still undiscovered, both women were working on the series with very limited funds, and were therefore only able to have friends or family assist them in the production. This results in a series which feels authentically home-made in its aesthetic; features which eventually become characteristics essential to the transferral from Web to television. Glazer and Jacobson resolved to make the Web series from a more professional standpoint by the second season by following a production schedule and choosing to treat the vignettes as if they were real television shorts. As Glazer states, the pair “just had a new attitude”, and suddenly the aim shifted from producing webisodes as a creative outlet, to pitching the show in Los Angeles (Kameir). 

By the time the final episode was set to go into production, the two creators believed that the chances of having the series picked up by a network would increase if the episode featured a guest star. Because of their involvement in the UCB, Glazer and Jacobson approached one of the founders of the sketch group, Amy Poehler, to make a brief cameo.  The Web series as a whole had garnered half a million hits, but the finale in which Poehler plays herself, received almost seventy-five thousand (Paumgarten). Poehler agreed to work with the Broad City duo following her appearance in the finale, and signed on to be Executive Producer should the show ever be made into a television series. 

The star power held by Poehler is undoubtedly a lead contributor to the success in Broad City’s transfer between the media. Poehler states that she felt a kinship towards the project because of her work in translating UCB sketches to television. In a roundtable interview, she says “Feeling very protective about the material, but wanting to bring it to a bigger audience…I related to that and understood it” (The Paley Centre for Media). On the difficult business of bringing Web series to television, Poehler compares it to that of an organ transplant, explaining “You have to move fast. You have to keep it on ice and be careful not to harm it in any way. A lot of things can go wrong. Sometimes the best way to get a heart or a kidney to a recipient is to get people to move out of the way” (Paumgarten). With Poehler’s assistance, the concept of Broad City as a television series was introduced to various networks before being successfully picked up by Comedy Central. From January of 2014, the network aired Broad City’s first season, comprised of ten, twenty-two-minute-long episodes. Averaging 1.2 million viewers per episode, season one of Broad City became one of Comedy Central’s highest rated shows since 2012 (Ng). 

From Web to TV: Alternative Ideas of Millennial Women in Broad City

The factors behind why certain texts effectively transfer from Web to television and others fail continues to be debated within academic and popular culture circles. Series such as Quarterlife (2007), The CollegeHumor Show (2009), and the more recent Haters Back Off (2016-) - all texts which were originally made for online consumption only - were each met with criticism when translated for television (Peirce 317; Lowry; Christian, “How” ). This does not necessarily mean that a Web series is undeserving of a place in commercial or network television. Obviously, it comes down to multiple factors, but often it is because the television series comes across as out of touch, compared to its online version. As Alice points out, with the speed of online release, and the “virality” that accompanies this kind of media, writers have the ability to be “guided by and to capitalise on what and how the viewer public feels” (60). Television series are often seen commenting on outside criticism within episodes, but there is extensive lagging due to the time it takes to produce a season. 

Broad City was set to have an easier time on television, what with its impressive following, and “Celebrity Shepherd”, Amy Poehler - Poehler presented as a necessity when making the jump from Web to TV, according to Christian (“The Web”). But there appears to be a fine line when shifting between the platforms: in staying too close to the original, a series could come off as unoriginal and therefore unnecessary. Or, alternatively, a series could add too many other storylines in order to fill the time slot, and ruin the simplicity of the premise. Adaptation theorist, Linda Hutcheon, contends that a successful translation occurs when a text remains loyal to the original, but brings creativity to the reimagining (21). If investigating the transferral within the realm of adaptation theory, Broad City’s success as a television series is arguably due to it following this formula. Hutcheon writes that to adapt is not to slavishly copy, but rather, is the process of reclaiming the adapted material. “What one does with the text” is where the novelty is found (21). 

In looking at what Broad City, the television series, has done with Broad City, the Web series, there is clear loyalty shown to the original. This is seen most significantly in the treatment of the same two protagonists, and the dynamic of their friendship. In both versions of Broad City, Abbi is the older of the two and the more responsible one, to a degree. While she still enjoys smoking marijuana with Ilana, Abbi is also constantly striving to reach traditional goals in her life such as having a career she enjoys, or maintaining a healthy relationship. Ilana, on the other hand, is a proud marijuana enthusiast who occasionally shows up for her job, but cares more for smoking weed, enjoying casual sex, and being with her friends (primarily Abbi). 

Neither the Web series nor the television series explicitly states how the two characters met, but it is implied that they have built a strong, sister-like relationship with one another. Often Ilana comments on her sexual attraction to Abbi, but it is always seen as comedic rather than as a hint towards a possible coupling in future episodes. In the Web series’ second season, the episode Valentine’s Day, introduces this satirical take on female friendships for the first time. The three-minute episode shows brief cuts of Abbi and Ilana doing various activities in the city, all of which are stereotypically featured in films of the romantic comedy genre. 

As they play in the snow, ride a ferry, and watch couples ice-skate at the Rockefeller Centre, the clarinet music playing over the sequence builds momentum. However, the scene is suddenly halted as Ilana goes in to kiss Abbi and, unlike in said romantic film montages, Abbi quickly jolts back and cries “Ilana, what the fuck? How many times do I have to fucking tell you?” This is the first line of audible dialogue in the scene thus far, to which a frustrated Ilana responds, “I’m trying to seal the night with a kiss.” Following this is a heated debate regarding how each character viewed the intention of the day, with Ilana thinking it was a really “romantic day”, despite knowing that Abbi is decidedly heterosexual. This kind of satirical angle taken towards the trope of female friendship is carried over to the television series and made just as prominent, with almost every single episode making a joke at Ilana’s romantic desire for Abbi. Alongside the sexual attraction, the closeness of the two female leads remains unchanged between the two media. 

In the television series, for example, jokes about Ilana’s love for Abbi are scattered throughout, and as in the original series, they remain brief and inconsequential. In the television pilot, What a Wonderful World, the episode opens to a typical scene of the two characters having a V-chat (a nod to a favoured motif in the Web series). While chatting to Abbi, it initially appears as though Ilana is bopping up and down to the music of Lil Wayne. However, it is quickly revealed when Ilana shifts her laptop screen down, that she is actually having sex with her casual partner, Lincoln (Hannibal Buress). The sequence cuts to Abbi looking outraged at her laptop, asking “Oh my god, is that Lincoln?”. Lincoln then replies, “Yep”, just before the camera cuts to him lying on the bed, with Ilana’s laptop on his stomach. When Abbi asks if they are having sex, Ilana casually replies “I’m just keeping it warm”, forcing Abbi to once again have a discussion about boundaries. Once they close the V-chat, the scene stays on a low angle shot of Ilana as she says to Lincoln, “That was like a threesome”, reassuring the audience that she has learned nothing. This is a strong opening scene as it reinforces the understanding that the relationship between the two characters is unchanged. Furthermore, it proves to audiences that although Broad City has moved into a television landscape, it will not be tamed. The result of refusing to be tamed in its new environment is that Broad City can continue representing female friendship in more honest ways, as well as offer new ideas of what it is to be a millennial woman today.


In an interview, Glazer explains how television has a history of never being honest in its representation of women, arguing, “Nothing’s real on TV” (Miller). Jacobson follows on from this, stating “When we write for these characters… I think the thing we talk about the most is like, well, what would we really do? It’s just real” (Miller). In abiding by this sentiment throughout the web series and the television series, Broad City effectively offers the idea that depicting diversity is possible on both platforms. 

With various Web series still unable to successfully make the jump to television today, it becomes more obvious that Broad City’s decision to continue showcasing bold female narratives is what allows it to maintain its popularity. Starting in such an uninhibited environment has proven a burden for other texts when it comes to transferring creativity to the more traditional medium of television. For Broad City, however, the alternative storytelling platform allowed the show to create its strong foundation and dedicated fan base. One that has willingly followed Broad City across the platforms, but will only stay tuned if it stays true to representing millennial women honestly, regardless of whether mainstream television is ready.


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Author Biography

Bridgette Glover, University of New England

Bridgette Glover is a PhD candidate and casual tutor at the University of New England. Her research interests include representations of gender, sexuality, identity, and feminism within contemporary American television. Email: