By Jim Sabataso
Like “High Maintenance,” another HBO series which debuted this fall, “Insecure” got its start as a web-series called “Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl.” Created by Issa Rae, the series is an attempt to bring to life a black female character Rae could relate to — one which she found lacking in popular culture.
In interviews, Rae has discussed how her upbringing shaped her identity, which straddles blackness and whiteness in various ways. Born in Los Angeles to a father who was a doctor and mother who was a teacher, her family lived in both the affluent Maryland suburb of Potomac and the country of Senegal before settling back in L.A., where Rae attended college at Stanford. As a result, she never felt fully at home in either world.
That experience is present on both the web-series and “Insecure,” where characters resist categorization and offer a more complex and layered characterization of blackness than what is commonly found on TV. (There are similarities here to what Donald Glover is currently doing over on FX with “Atlanta.”)
On the show, Rae plays Issa Dee, a 20-something professional living in Los Angeles with her long-term boyfriend Lawrence (Jay Ellis) and working at a nonprofit serving black youth. At Issa’s side is her BFF Molly (Yvonne Orji), a successful lawyer who is far less successful at relationships.
The series examines life as a young black woman in 2016 through the eyes of Issa and Molly, from their rocky relationships to their often unsatisfying professional lives. It might be tempting to make comparisons to “Girls,” another HBO series about Millennial women, but there’s not a lot of common ground here. First of all, the characters on “Insecure” are likable. Second, the story Rae and showrunner Prentice Penny (“Happy Endings,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) are telling is far more unique to TV.
Issa is a great protagonist, flawed and likable in all the right ways. She’s selfish, but self-aware enough to want to be better. Even when she screws up, which she does big-time toward the end of the season, you’re still rooting for her.
Through Issa we get occasional voiceover narration to give context to scenes. It works well to illustrate the character’s passive-aggressive tendencies. She may come off as shy and more than a little awkward, but beneath the surface she’s far less restrained.
The technique is used to great effect at her job, where she encounters near-constant patronization and soft racism from her nonblack coworkers. When a coworker asks Issa what “on fleek” means, she politely pleads ignorance. “I know what that shit means,” she says in voiceover.
Issa also uses freestyle rap to vent her frustrations. Moments of stress or conflict are typically followed up by Issa staring into the bathroom mirror and rapping about what just happened. While these scenes are sometimes played for laughs, with Issa spitting some truly cringe-inducing rhymes, we do see moments of real skill.
The primary arc of the first season focuses on Issa’s relationship with Lawrence. After five years together, they’re at a crossroads. Lawrence is a good guy, whose puppy-dog affection for Issa is sweet, if at times pitiable, but his struggle to find work after his career in the tech world sputtered out has become a source of stress for the couple. Similarly, Issa’s fickleness and selfish tendencies have put an additional strain on things, especially when an old flame pops back into her life.
“Insecure” also gets points for presenting a version of Los Angeles that feels lived in. While many shows are set in L.A., few actually manage to capture a sense of place. Those sun-drenched sets on shows like “Modern Family” and “Black-ish” never escape the studio backlot bubble. “Insecure,” which shoots on-location, makes L.A. feel like a real place.
Racial, gender and sexual politics run through the show and are unpacked with a smartness and care that never feels preachy. Issa’s struggles as the only black person at a nonprofit for black kids underscore the tone-deafness of well-meaning white liberals.
At Molly’s law firm, a conversation between her and another black coworker about code-switching illustrates the different expectations held for people of color in the workplace, which only gets more complicated when Molly’s white boss asks her to address that employee’s behavior on behalf of the firm.
Those politics even play out among Issa’s all-black social group. When one of Molly’s boyfriends reveals he didn’t attend college, the room turns cold as they try and fail at not judging him.
A revelation that the same boyfriend once had a same-sex experience after Molly reveals the same, addresses the problem of homophobia within the black community, with Issa and other friends taking opposing positions in an extended discussion of it.
This is all smart stuff delivered in a entertaining package. “Insecure” isn’t as joke-dense as other sitcoms, but the laughs that are there are strong and well-earned. The show soars thanks to Rae’s singular voice and ability to make her experience relatable and thoroughly enjoyable.
Check it out
“Insecure” airs Sundays at 10:30 p.m. on HBO. Catch up on previous episodes on HBO GO, HBO NOW or on-demand.