'Insecure' Season 4: TV Review

Still hilarious … still retreading familiar storylines.
4/12/2020

Issa Rae's tart HBO comedy returns with a rapid-fire joke rate, despite an unexpectedly downcast mood.

"Every time I claim a 'new me,' I feel like I just end up in old shit," Issa (Issa Rae) complains to her best friend, Molly (Yvonne Orji), in the third season of HBO's fizzy millennial comedy Insecure.

Each woman came to a personal reckoning in the series' third outing, which aired during the summer of 2018. Flailing Issa found and lost a new love interest, but obtained some measure of closure with her ex, Lawrence (Jay Ellis). Even more important, she gained new footing in her career and financial security, first by become a building superintendent, for reduced rent, in a new apartment complex, and then by quitting her job at a nonprofit to pursue community event planning. Meanwhile, perfectionist Molly finally allowed herself to open up to a man who didn't meet her exacting (and unrealistic) criteria for romantic partnership.

But given these forward strides, why does Insecure otherwise still home to some of TV's funniest one-liners feel like it's just ending up in proverbial "old shit"?

Season four picks up just weeks after the third-season finale. Issa is months away from planning her audacious Market Street Block Party, a celebration of black-owned businesses and black culture, with the help of her pleasantly bland new friend Condola (Christina Elmore), while Molly is trying to figure out how committed to each other she and Andrew (Alexander Hodge) actually are. But, once again, discord between the BFFs is brewing, Issa and Molly increasingly sniping at one another, each woman judgmental of the other's emotional stagnation.

"You were coming for me!" Molly swings defensively after Issa calls her out for her cutting critiques. "And I feel like you've been coming for me. What's going on?" Issa retorts. When Issa finds out that Condola is her ex's new girlfriend, Molly is incredulous that her friend keeps returning to the old Sturm und Drang with Lawrence. At the same time, Issa loses patience with Molly's dissatisfied default mode. Frankly, I agree with them both.

The short narrative gap between the last finale and the new premiere (despite the nearly two years since Insecure last aired) contributes to the lethargic pace of season four. If it feels like the story is moving so slowly it's actually going backward  that's because it is. The season opens in media res, and in its first moments we learn that Issa and her bestie are on the outs: "Honestly … I don't fuck with Molly anymore," she tells a mystery caller on the other end of the line. But it takes five flashback episodes before their mutual hostility boils over into a near-physical altercation at Issa's big event, killing the shock built into Issa's initial confession.

The themes of emotional inertia and developmental regression are, of course, realistic aspects of the upheavals triggered by entering your early 30s. And self-sabotage, in particular, can injure a long-standing friendship that's already scarred and scabbed over from previous conflicts. (After all, old bonds equal old bloodshed.) But watching Issa and Lawrence once again dance around each other and their history and witnessing Molly struggle in another relationship makes for repetitive storytelling, even if the friends' frustration with each other acknowledges this Möbius-strip behavior. Retreading old patterns isn't fun for friends, and it certainly isn't fun for viewers.

It's no coincidence that, of the batch of episodes available to critics, the best one involves little interaction between the women at all. In the third chapter, Issa and Molly spend Thanksgiving with their respective families, rewarding us with a break from their tensions. Issa shares a jubilant Mexican dinner with her brother Ahmal (Jean Elie, a deft addition to the cast) to avoid an awkward dessert at Molly's, and finally admits out loud that her new friend Condola is "reaping all the benefits of [Lawrence's] time with me." Issa is growing  but in the wrong direction.

Comic relief arrives in the form of Issa and Molly's other friends, bougie Tiffany (Amanda Seales) and antic Kelli (Natasha Rothwell), who are still churning out the show's most hilarious lines while clowning around in between Issa and Molly's mind games. Seales and Rothwell, both maestras of delivery and physical comedy, unfortunately have little to do but prance around as the "Charlotte" and "Samantha" of this friend group, Tiffany enjoying motherhood more for its aesthetic charms than its drudging realities and Kelli constantly seeking her next conquest. While they offer a welcome respite from the heavier friendship dynamics of the season, neither gains much character development or even characterization at all beyond their punchlines. That being said, when their punchlines land, they land.

Some of Insecure's best work is in its satire, as when Issa's anti-gentrification Block Party is unexpectedly taken over by white patrons, or in Issa's raucous sex with a plus-size male TSA agent, which parodies stereotypes about hypersexual fat women. My favorite thread of the season is the characters' obsession with a Serial-meets-Surviving R. Kelly true crime documentary franchise called Looking for La Toya. (The mock series matches well with Issa's past binge watches, like slavery soap Due North and a reboot of a '90s sitcom called Kevin.) The HBO comedy is as funny as ever, but I miss its lighter spirit.

Cast: Issa Rae, Yvonne Orji, Natasha Rothwell, Amanda Seales, Jay Ellis, Alexander Hodge, Christina Elmore, Wade Allain-Marcus, Jean Elie
Executive producers: Issa Rae, Prentice Penny, Melina Matsoukas, Michael Rotenberg, Jonathan Berry
Premieres Sunday, April 12, 10 p.m. (HBO)