New York Based Millennial Comedies: Still Growing Up in the Big Apple
Millennial women living (and failing) in New York City has almost become a genre unto itself. We examine why....
New York city has always been a hot setting for film and television. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Annie Hall, Hair, Manhattan, The Odd Couple, All in the Family, Friends, and my personal favorite, Seinfeld, have as much been set in New York City as made the city a character in their runs. So this trend is nothing new—but it seems there is a steep rise in popularity of an NYC setting for female comedies that involve Gen Y-ers. And the pending question is why?
In the last three years, there have been at least six comedy television shows about young women in New York: 2 Broke Girls, Girls, Broad City, and The Mindy Project, just to name a few, as well as two extremely popular movies with 2012’s Frances Ha and the recently released Trainwreck. All are very different and yet all cover the same landscape for Millennial comedies set in NYC. Indeed, the cluster of these projects in the last few years really illustrates the popularity and codependency of age and this city.
The Rise of Girls
Most of it, I think, can be attributed to the quick fame of Girls. People have different reasons they accredit to the nearly instantaneous fame of Girls. Personally, and I think most would agree, although it doesn’t cover all of female thought and sexuality, it came closer than any other series had before. And it appealed to its post-grad (or almost post-grad) audience. People who, for the most part, were about to be completely lost in a sea of being on their own, paying electric bills, and filling out job applications. Because we watched Dunham’s character Hannah Horvath struggle to be an artist, as well as to just be able to afford dinner, we believed her. We connected with her. It was the non-glamour of it all.
The dust-covered Girls (as well as Broad City, 2 Broke Girls, and Frances Ha) is so much more appealing than Sex and the City. All that glitter got in your eyes and made you believe that you can be a poor writer who owns her own apartment in Manhattan, and can buy shoes that cost half my rent. But that’s not truth.
Yes , Sex and the City was popular for a while, but we can always see through it. If Carrie Bradshaw and her friends were ten years younger, it would’ve looked a whole lot different. And on the same foot, if they were still struggling at their age and all the shine and glamour was gone, then that would be too sad to watch too.
But it’s not just the way Girls focuses on this Millennial purgatory that made shows for this generation set in NYC so popular. It’s the city itself that drew writers of this genre in. Manhattan and its surrounding boroughs are so very complimentary to this specific demographic.
The Age Appropriate City for Failing
I spoke briefly about Girls, but let me talk about another show that hopped on the Millennials-in-NYC bandwagon, Broad City. Two girls, Abbi and Ilana, are a few more years out of college than the Girls cast and they’re living in Brooklyn with only a slight resemblance of a life plan. Abbi, played by co-creator and writer Abbi Jacobson, wants to be an artist. In the meantime, though, she’s mopping vomit and cleaning pubic hair out of showers. Is it sad? Not really. This is the time for the crappy jobs and grandiose future plans. And there’s no better city for it that New York City because almost everyone here is like that!
This is the city where every barista is a writer or painter. Where your bartender practices her set for you. Everyone is someone trying to get their shit together! And because everyone is like that, you never have to feel embarrassed. And if you don’t have dream yet that’s fine too.
2 Broke Girls hit the air a little before Girls had that down-and-dirty stagnant living thing represented. Max and Caroline work the night shift at a Williamsburg diner and no matter what small victories they have, every night it’s back in the mustard polyester uniforms, pouring watered-down coffee under florescent lights.
We need this very distinct blending of just starting off and being in a city that is perfect for launching (and failing).
NYC offers something very special, which I touched on previously, and that’s freedom. Of course, Hannah, Abbi Ilana, and Max and Caroline could have been thrown into any city, so why NYC? Well it’s all about the setting. The thing is that whether you are an actual New Yorker who drinks black coffee out of those cheap blue cups or you’re watching from your Ohio living room, you know NYC. A picture comes to mind of freedom and different types of people: artists, writers, financiers, dancers, architects, dreamers. People who have their place and people looking for one.
Even if you never stepped foot on a downtown F or walked through Central Park, you have a feeling for what the city stands for. Everyone always wants to be there, because it’s the if I can make it there, I can make it anywhere attitude. And that’s important.
In Girls, Hannah wants to be a writer after college in the Midwest. And as I said, Abbi wants to be an artist in Broad City. Frances Ha, which came out in 2012, has a little bit of the same feeling as Girls did. A sort of quirky main character trying to follow her dreams of being a dancer and failing miserably.
These shows and films rely on a place that is inviting to all and that affords the characters the freedom to find what they are looking for, as well as to be surrounded by like-minded characters.
Big and Lonely
I’ve spoken quite a bit about a city of certain types of people but I think it is also important to mention the solitude of living in New York City. It has been said a lot that often people can feel very alone walking through city streets. Because it is so populated and people are always filling bars, it can be hard to be by yourself and not feel alone. Take a walk on any Saturday morning and the streets are buzzing with tipsy brunchers who seem to have hundreds of friends. And even you have a group of your own—every time you are not physically with them, the city reminds you of that.
There seems to be something important about that feeling. It’s a perfect built-in idea to exemplify any moment in a show. If Hannah and Marnie have a fight, the episode will cut to Hannah walking down restaurant-lined streets filled with people dining al fresco and laughing. Of course, NYC is not the only place that has that, but New York is always so loud and bursting at the seams. Everyone walks and no one seems to ever be working.
By contrast of these shows, The Mindy Project has almost no grit; it uses the idea of being alone in a city a little differently. It works as an escape. If you look around the city, it’s always full of young people, most of whom have left their homes and come here. And Mindy is away from her family, and the solitude of that helps her chase her own relationship dreams. It’s really the only one of the bunch that has a successful woman where the only thing missing is someone to share a life with.
With brings me to the next part …
New York City provides such an interesting backdrop for romantic entanglement. Indeed, all of the previously mentioned series and films have something else in common besides location: single woman who are totally and unabashedly unafraid to date the way they want. Whether it means dating around, sleeping around, having a hook-up buddy, pegging, or just being one of those “crazy” women who loves sex. It’s fine!
This town seems to breed a different sort of woman. I’ve lived in the city practically my whole life and I notice this pattern of women who are not only unafraid to be single but take ownership of it. Take dating on their own terms. Maybe it’s the sheer amount of how many people there are that women don’t feel people are looking at them too closely, and instead of feeling oppressed they feel a sense of freedom?
Consider Amy Schumer’s unapologetic and unabashed Trainwreck. Schumer wrote a female character that enjoys one-night-stands and casual flings, and who is never worried about settling down. Which is how I think a lot of women are, and NYC seemed open enough for the movie to be set there, providing that crucial and aforementioned freedom. As people always say, New Yorkers don’t really care about what you’re doing, unless it’s stopping in middle of the street to take selfies.
This one is kind of obvious. New York City is one of the most expensive places. So expensive that it’s almost comical. A closet costs more to rent a year than what half the other cities in the country charge for a mansion. And without that, these shows wouldn’t work so well.
There are two parts here, but I want to start with the expensive angle. In Girls, the opening scene has Hannah’s parents cutting her off. And we know when that happens you are royally screwed. Everything cost more here, and we need that for our characters to be forced into certain predicaments for money. There’s more at stake.
And who can forget the Broad City pilot in which Abbi and Ilana put out their “we’re just two Jewess trying to make a buck” Craigslist ad? They end up in creepy Fred Armisen’s apartment where they clean for an hour in their underwear, and then Armisen (who is dressed as an adult baby) says he has no money but can play them in blocks, because he is a baby! Duh.
It’s the perpetual state of having absolutely no money, because you have to pay astronomical rent and everything costs so much that forces these young characters into odd situations and crappy jobs.
The next important thing to talk about here is how apparent the income inequality is in NYC. On the same block, you can see someone wearing a $5,000 handbag and 10 homeless people. It’s important because there is a very clear reach for the characters’ aspirations, whether it be to emulate the rich or just to work for them. It creates something very interesting for the plots to rub against and create friction. Even if it’s never explicitly used, it’s always in the background. Having that one Groupon to a fancy restaurant, or being a nanny to kids who get more allowance than you make in a month. A lot of it is about never experiencing the whole other half of the city you live in, because it’s untouchable. It plays very well.
The Perfect Age
But finally there’s the age of these characters. I mentioned earlier that these films and shows don’t just share a setting; they share an age group.
All the attributes that make NYC a perfect place for these series would be nothing without its marriage to the characters’ age. They are in a codependent relationship. We need that ripe age of starting new. Of not knowing what comes next. Of not being afraid to fail, fall in love, make mistakes, be in debt, or sell PG-13 rated services on Craigslist. It doesn’t work otherwise.
The popularity stems from when New York and all its craziness come together with the madness of being in your 20s/early 30s. I want to watch Abbi and Ilana screw up because I am a 24-year-old New Yorker who screws up, and they make it look oh so appealing. On most days, I can’t stand Hannah but I totally get her. And yes, at times that can be scary. Amy Schumer speaks to me on nearly every level I can think of and in Trainwreck, I like to know it’s okay to drink a lot, sleep in, sleep around, and be unapologetic.
These shows and movies are poplar because they are gritty and they are true! Millennial-based NYC shows and films are going to continue popping up, because the ones we have are so popular. There are just so many aspects of New York living that make it perfect for this generation of characters. And also so relatable, no matter where you live. I don’t know about you, but I am super excited to see what other shows come out of NYC.