Insecure begins with its almost-30-year-old protagonist, Issa (Issa Rae), on the defensive about her life choices. “Why you talk like a white girl?” “Why aren’t you married?” “What’s up with your hair?” she’s asked by God’s most terrifying creation: teenagers. When she tries to lighten the mood in the classroom by joking that she’s “rocking blackface,” the white and Asian-American teachers nod to one another: “That’s racist.” Working for an educational nonprofit for youth of color where she’s the only African-American staffer, and stuck in a passionless five-year relationship with a layabout who takes her for granted, Issa’s ready for change: “How different would my life be if I actually went after what I wanted?”
Rae’s terrific HBO comedy — arriving on Sunday, October 9 — offers one of the most vital takes on that stock premise in recent years. Created by Rae and Larry Wilmore, Insecure is one of the best arguments for the verve and force of new perspectives. In some ways, the show is the female counterpart to Donald Glover’s Atlanta: an auteur-driven, hip-hop-inflected look at everyday urban life centered around dating, friendship, and musical passion through a black lens. But Insecure’s semiautobiographical specificity means Issa and her BFF, Molly (Yvonne Orji), have their own character-based concerns: the romantic challenges of educated black women, questions about what black women owe each other, professional microaggressions, cultural code-switching, and confronting sexism and homophobia.
The first six episodes nimbly capture the different facets of Issa and Molly’s lives. Their best friendship is the most immediate reason to tune in, with Rae and Orji sharing chemistry that sparks off the screen. Modeled on Rae’s real-life BFF, Molly is a “Will Smith” of corporate law with Naomi Campbell hair, but her grasping desperation for a long-term relationship is as obvious as her gorgeousness. At an open mike in the pilot, Issa freestyles about Molly’s “broken pussy”: “Maybe it’s dry as hell / Maybe it really smells.” Molly’s upset but forgiving curse-out exemplifies their rock-solid bond and hysterically blunt banter.
The restaurant-hopping friends start the series envious of each other’s dating situations: Issa wants Molly’s freedom, while Molly thinks her BFF’s found the rare guy who meets the lawyer’s impractical, stiletto-high standards. Getting together with girlfriends means an opportunity to air complaints: “L.A. men do not approach black women.” “Black women aren’t bitter; they’re just tired of being expected to settle for less.” And, most harshly, about black men with college degrees: “They act like women should be grateful for the opportunity to suck their dick.” But Issa is torn between two men: her what-if guy, Daniel (Y’lan Noel), and her willowy, possibly depressed boyfriend, Lawrence (Jay Ellis).
Issa and Lawrence’s relationship provides much of Insecure’s unexpected emotional depth. As we learn more about their relationship and Lawrence’s setbacks, we root for them to work things out as much as we hope one of them will gather the courage to pull the plug already. It’s through Lawrence that we learn why Issa isn’t ready to explode her life and start over as the “brave” and “no-fucks” version of herself that she claims to want to be. Issa might be tired of the “aggressively passive” approach she’s taken toward life, but she’s not a fuck-up, which is why it’s hard to figure out what’s worth keeping and what’s not.
The times when Insecure most closely resembles Rae’s popular web series, “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” are the workplace scenes where her whitesplaining colleagues make racist suggestions for what the black and Latino kids they think they’re “saving” should be doing. The show charts new pop-culture terrain, using L.A. middle-class neighborhoods south of the 10 (where Rae largely grew up) as its home base. Issa suggests her students travel beyond the local mall to experience the artsy metropolis they actually live in — and immediately gets shut down: “Wouldn’t they rather go to an African-American museum or, like, a Latina museum and just see how much more grateful other generations were?” Lines like “I took an African dance class in high school, so I can do mask work with the kids” from a white coworker are admittedly cringe-funny, but they’re also broad enough that they jar against the rest of the show’s naturalism.
Insecure’s candid, raunchy scripts contain fantastic zingers. “Why don’t more of them swim?” asks one of Issa’s workmates. “Slavery,” she rejoins without missing a beat. Rae infuses hilarious music into many of her line readings; a simple “boy bye nope” will incite giggles. In perhaps a visual nod to Rae’s web roots, Insecure finds Issa looking into the mirror as she improvises rhymes, simultaneously entertaining herself and refining her lyrics so she can finally become who she wants to be.