Broad City: Paul W. Downs on that Shania Twain-assisted Abbi-Trey reunion
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A few years ago, Paul W. Downs’ Broad City character Trey was known for his porn alter-ego, Kirk Steele, and little else. But in season 3, the show’s writing took him in a surprising new direction: a steamy, surprisingly poignant romance with Abbi (Abbi Jacobson).
It didn’t end well. Abbi lied about their relationship to Ilana (Ilana Glazer), and when she got caught, she played the romance off as none-too-serious — a dismissive reaction that quietly broke Trey’s heart. Abbi then left her job at Soulstice, where Trey was her boss, and the love story that fans became deeply invested in looked as if it wasn’t meant to be.
In Tuesday’s episode, however, viewers were treated to a lovely Trey-Abbi reunion — one in which none other than Shania Twain was cast in the role of their relationship counselor. The pair found some closure, and while the episode didn’t end with them riding into the sunset together, it was enough to give the Trey-Abbi shippers a sliver of hope.
Downs, who also co-wrote the episode, spoke with EW about the Abbi-Trey dynamic, writing for big guest stars, and how the show has chosen to respond to the Trump Era.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I’m among the legion of Broad City fans who are weirdly invested in the Trey/Abbi relationship. Talk to me about bringing them back together this week.
PAUL W. DOWNS: Last season I think the heart and the emotion of Broad City really reached new heights when Abbi lied to Ilana about dating Trey, and then when the lie’s discovered, to protect Ilana, she downplays it and she calls Trey a joke and she kind of breaks his heart. But obviously, that was to protect her best friend, and Abbi never meant to hurt Trey. Abbi’s a good person. She felt pretty bad about that. So there hadn’t been any resolution to that heartache and that thing that happened, so we just felt like that was something the audience should see.
How did you and the writers conceive of the relationship? Trey’s big episode before season 3 was “Kirk Steele,” and all of a sudden, he’s in this really poignant arc.
One thing that happens on the show is that because Abbi plays Abbi and Ilana plays Ilana and I, as a writer on the show, play Trey, our actual relationships do bleed into the show. So the fact that Abbi and I do care about each other and do have a very long relationship and do laugh at the same things that Ilana and Lucia [Aniello] — who’s a director and writer on the show— always roll their eyes at, I think that some of the dynamic you see between Trey and Abbi comes from the actual relationship that Abbi and I have.
But the evolution of the character and of the arc was surprising to all of us. It was not something that, when we were first talking about our blue sky and what the show could be like in the very first season — nobody was like, “Oh, Abbi should date her boss!” There’s a member of our crew, Lucy Cobbs, who one day was saying to Ilana, “Oh, I thought that Trey and Abbi were going to kiss.” This was actually long before it was actually part of the show. I think that kind of just bled into all of our minds — like, “Oh, that would be funny if that happened.”
So how did the idea of Shania Twain playing a romantic counselor for you two come about?
Well, she’s a writer of love songs! So honestly, we were like, if this is a moment for us to reconnect Trey and Abbi and also have them deal with what happened last year — because there’s been some time between it and they haven’t spoken — she seemed like the perfect counselor. She is somebody who writes love song lyrics all the time. The fact that we were able to get Shania and realize the lie that Abbi’s told for the past four seasons was really fun. It just seemed to make perfect sense that that’s how she would factor in and make it all better.
It was a perfect payoff to that four-season-long lie.
I know! It was such a funny line that just came about because she had a Freudian or a mouth fumble — a slip.
More broadly, it’s reflective of the number of great guest stars that Broad City juggles now. In this episode, you have RuPaul, you have Sandra Bernhard in a cameo—
Wanda Sykes, too. This one was packed. Packed with incredible people.
Writing an episode like this, how do you approach writing for someone like, say, RuPaul, who’s so funny here?
Because he has such a specific voice himself — obviously he’s playing a character, he’s not playing himself or his alter-ego — it is sort of a departure. And yet because he has such a specific voice, we were able to write to that. It just kind of made sense that he would play a high-status manager since on Drag Race, he truly is on the throne. It was such a pleasure and so exciting to think about him doing it. This was another thing where we wrote for him not knowing whether or not he would actually say yes. Another stroke of luck that we were able to do it, and he agreed. It was pretty cool.
The episode gets back into the show’s rhythms after the ambitious premiere, which includes a little Trump-as-president premonition. In light of the election, how did you personally approach writing or adjusting this season?
We wrote the season in May and June of last year, and then we had gone off to shoot a movie and the election happened. And when the election happened, we were like, “Okay, it’s a different world.” We wrote season 4 in an Obama era, and it’s a very different world. So we did do pretty extensive rewrites of the season post-election. One of the things that you’ve probably noticed is that Trump’s name is bleeped this year. It’s used as an expletive. I know that the cold open of this episode, with the abortion escorts to Planned Parenthood, was something that we were like, “Well, that’s one of the many things we think we should add now.” We want to make sure that we’re using the show and the platform we have in a positive way. The day after the election, we actually were all together — Abbi, Ilana, Lucia, and I, and also Jen Statsky, who’s another writer on the show. We were all together and like, okay, we have to change a lot of the show and try our best — without putting message before comedy — to make sure that what we’re doing speaks to the Trumpian era. And resists.
I’ve said this many times so this is not a new thing, but we always do try and put the funny thing first. But because we so intimately know the voices of Abbi and Ilana, and because they’re such distinct, unique characters and performers, we’re able to think about scenarios that would be funny and potentially political or satirize something. And then when you put Abbi and Ilana in there, you’re able to do a lot. You’re able to do a lot in Broad City that makes it a subversive message, where it’s not heavy-handed or seems distracting. And also: The fact that they live in New York and are in their 20s and are part of the resistance, I think that makes it sort of a requirement.
The Trey-Abbi stuff in this episode ends on a somewhat painful, sad note. Is anything else in store for them this season?
This episode gives closure to the heartbreak that happened last season. Abbi and Trey reconnect in more ways than one, and in more places than one. But I think the one thing I can definitively say — because you see it — is that Abbi has a new job. Since season 1, because the show is about 20-somethings in New York City, we always want them to have a bunch of different jobs. I don’t know that you’re going to see the Soulstice world, but Abbi and Ilana always talk about the world of Broad City almost like The Simpsons, that it lives on beyond what we see in the scenes. Broad City is truly a city that never sleeps. So Trey is alive in the Broad City world. And what it means for their relationship — nobody knows, truly. But what I can say is it’s Broad City, so really anything’s possible.