Looking through the stock of new TV shows entering the fall season, a growing pattern of shows about race, specifically about the contemporary Black experience, seems to be present. FX’s “Atlanta,” OWN’s “Queen Sugar” and Netflix’s “Luke Cage” are three such examples that not only showcase more representation for Black actors, but also address issues the Black community often faces, including police brutality, marginalization and socioeconomic status. But while those topics are illustrated in rather serious settings (“Atlanta” is a slight exception), HBO’s newest comedy, “Insecure,” proves that issues concerning the Black community, specifically Black women, can still be just as thought provoking when told through a comedic lens.
At the helm of “Insecure” is writer-actress Issa Rae, who co-created the show with Larry Wilmore of Comedy Central’s sadly defunct “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore.” Though Rae is a relatively new voice on American television, she has been slowly making her way to stardom since 2011. Her cult YouTube series, “Awkward Black Girl,” displayed Rae’s unique life experiences, from her awkward dates, to job hunting, to simply living as a Black woman in America. Ultimately, “Awkward Black Girl” would become the basis for “Insecure,” and thanks to better production values provided by HBO, “Insecure” picks up where “Awkward Black Girl” left off — and then some.
Featuring an incredible comedic cast, razor-sharp writing, crisp cinematography and a phenomenal soundtrack, Rae and Wilmore’s “Insecure” gets the “Master of None” treatment: it’s a comedy that’s both relatable and distinctive, weaving a tight-knit thread between universality and specificity. While it subtly tackles office discrimination and microaggressions, “Insecure” also explores the complexity of Black female friendship, romance, self-identity and the existential dread of being in your late 20s. In addition to conveying more representation of people of color, “Insecure” expertly excels at subverting expectations and stereotypes about Black people through Rae’s three-dimensional depictions of her characters.
In the show, Rae plays Issa Dee, a driven yet self-conscious Los Angeles woman who deals with her everyday anxiety by rapping in front of the bathroom mirror. As the only Black woman working at a nonprofit organization helping underprivileged children, Issa can’t help but recognize her voicelessness and token presence among her predominantly white co-workers.
At one point, Issa directly points out some of this discomfort, when her co-worker Kitty (Veronica Mannion, “American Horror Story”) negligibly asks her, “What’s on fleek?” “I don’t know what that means,” Issa responds passive-aggressively, but through voiceover, she really tells us what’s on her mind: “I know what that shit means.”
Simultaneously, Issa has trouble confronting her deadbeat, long-term boyfriend Lawrence (Jay Ellis, “Movie 43”) about where they’re headed as a couple. After her recently single high school crush Daniel (Y’lan Noel, “The Hustle”) comes back into the picture, Issa must decide whether or not her love for Lawrence is enough to keep their relationship moving forward.
Meanwhile, Issa’s best friend Molly (newcomer Yvonne Orji) is living quite the opposite experience to Issa. She’s a hot-shot success and adored by her multiracial co-workers at her corporate law agency, but she struggles to find a significant other in the dating scene, especially when her office mate becomes engaged.
Molly and Issa’s relationship, while volatile at times, feels realistic as any best friendship would; the two exchange funny anecdotes and entangle themselves in screaming matches, but at the end of the day, Issa and Molly find a way to make up. And what feels so refreshing about this particular friendship in “Insecure” is that it doesn’t reflect the frequently negative depictions of Black women often seen in reality shows or melodramas. It simply illustrates the two as modern day working women with a fun-loving, dysfunctional relationship.
The mirror rap sequences in “Insecure” provide much of the show’s laughs as a storytelling device, replacing “Awkward Black Girl” ’s flashbacks and first-person voiceover. But these sequences also demonstrate Issa’s conviction to individuality, both as a writer and as an actress. As she gets ready for a night out with Molly in the pilot, she tries on a variety of lipsticks during a gut-busting montage, with each lipstick representing a different identity of Black women. However, in the end, Issa opts for plain lip balm, signifying that the most attractive, interesting person she can be is herself.
Through all its unabashed raunchiness and socially conscious themes, “Insecure” is a blessing for Issa Rae fans, as well as a pleasant surprise for novices to her work. Rae and Wilmore have effortlessly blended the modern-day Black experience with an enlightening, vulgar and captivating story about a woman entering a transitional period in her adult life. The show certainly spins themes similar to other character-driven comedies about living in your 20s, but “Insecure” proves that these kinds of stories can be just as compelling with more diverse voices.