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When it comes to accurate freelancer representation in pop culture, we’ve seen slight improvements since the days of Carrie Bradshaw. One show that does a better job of revealing the ups and downs and the inconsistencies that can come with freelancing and non-traditional work is Broad City. Certainly Carrie’s life looks glamorous and a goal to strive for, but Abbi and Ilana have the lives that more people can relate to.
Broad City and its heroines (also the show’s creators) have a hyper awareness of the grind of freelance life and job precarity. In one episode, Abbi receives an $8,000 check after finally selling her art and struts into the bank with Ilana, lip-syncing Drake’s “Started from the Bottom.” Now, as many seasoned freelancers know, Abbi probably should’ve set some of that money aside for taxes. Instead, after being pushed to her wits end by her roommate, Abbi tries to use the money to move. She sees a series of horrible apartments, struggles with her broker, and eventually decides to use the money to pay for her current rent for the next few months — giving herself a bit of security for the first time. In the same episode, Ilana has to find a missing remote because the cable company keeps fining her for not returning it and her bank account overdrafts. Obviously this is funny — especially because a lot of us have most likely been there before. But overdraft fees can really screw you over. These unglamorous mishaps and minor to major hardships are realities for many people, especially freelancers who depend on things like timely payments from clients.
The characters don’t explicitly say they are freelancers, but they continue to work side jobs throughout the shows five seasons. Abbi works at Anthropologie (selling laughably named items like “robin’s nest Caucasian headdresses”), but eventually gets fired. She then turns to cater-waitering, working at fancy art events that she dreams of one day being invited to. Ilana works a bunch of temp jobs and briefly hits it rich while working at a fancy Manhattan restaurant. She's constantly trying to get her entrepreneurial pursuits off the ground, most notably her "phone wigs." In different episodes, the friends go to health clinics and a few hospitals. Ilana’s boyfriend, Lincoln, is a dentist who the women regularly go to for discounted root canals, fillings, and wisdom teeth surgery. This is arguably dancing on the line of malpractice, but you get the point — these non-traditional employees are forced to get a little scrappy to gain the insurance protections that most full-time employees have a right to.
Through their show, Ilana and Abbi give viewers an in-depth, comedic, and absurdist front-row look at life as an at times either unemployed, part-time employed, or contractually employed twenty-something struggling with student loans and trying to earn a living doing what they love. In one episode, they Airbnb one of their apartments to earn some extra cash. They’ve worked as gym cleaners, babysitters, and paid interns. Abbi refers to Bed, Bath and Beyond as the most glamorous place to shop. She once goes on a shopping spree at Whole Foods while high on pain-killers after her wisdom teeth surgery, only to wake up to a horrifically expensive receipt. The characters hilariously show the reality of selling clothes at second-hand stores like Beacon’s Closet, demonstrating the infuriating and baffling concept of how you can choose between receiving $15 cash or $200 in store credit.
When it comes to TV characters, unless it is used as a prop or a trope for the character, we rarely see the same outfit worn twice. It’s refreshing to see Abbi splurge on an expensive dress, overthink it to death afterwards, and then continue to wear it consistently to different events throughout the season. The characters are mostly having fun, but their finances and struggle to keep up with rent and bills is always in the background — they take busses instead of renting cars and we rarely see them go on vacation.
Broad City successfully brought episodic income and financial insecurity to the forefront of its plot without making the characters stereotypical “gig workers” or overly-privileged recent graduates. The characters represent a burden many freelancers, artists, and creatives experience without letting it totally ruin the character's lives — a refreshing dose of reality and a much needed TV narrative change. While the show may be over, hopefully this is just the beginning of a more accurate representation of the growing norm of non-traditional work.