Reviewing TV is a cumulative job. As much as I might enjoy shows like You’re the Worst and Transparent and Love and Togetherness in isolation, there came a point in the spring where I became slightly fatigued with seeing the same neighborhoods, the same trendy brunch spots in the backgrounds, the same pretty twenty-something actors featured as extras — even if I know perfectly well that those shows aren’t actually “the same.”
Ideally, the point of Peak TV, the point of living in a world in which there are nearly 500 scripted original shows making their way to us in different forms, is that even if the number of narratives is finite, the number of available stories shouldn’t be. Sure, you can have a show whose plot points viewers have seen before, but if you put them in locations that haven’t been exposed or cast people who look or sound like characters we haven’t seen and heard, they ought to become different shows. A superhero show is a superhero show is a superhero show, but when the hero looks like Luke Cage and his backyard looks like contemporary Harlem, what you ought to get is a show that’s familiar-but-different.
Created by Issa Rae and Larry Wilmore, the new HBO comedy Insecure achieves that familiar-but-different mandate admirably. In isolation, again, it’s a smart and often funny look at young people looking for love and professional satisfaction in Los Angeles, which is about as common a genre as TV has to offer these days. But taken in the totality of the TV landscape, Rae’s voice is one that wasn’t being heard and that voice is what makes Insecure stand out, not necessarily as better than the Emmy winners or critical favorites in the field, but as gratifyingly distinguishable.
Rae, who broke her way into the HBO space thanks to the
New York-set YouTube series The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl, plays Issa, a 29-year-old woman working as “the token with all the answers” at a well-meaning but frequently clueless nonprofit for inner-city youths. The show’s title refers to Issa’s challenges being assertive, making her voice heard, steering herself in the direction she thinks she deserves to go. As she puts it, “How different would my life be if I actually went after what I wanted?” Helping Issa, but also adding to her insecurities, are her more successful and seemingly put-together best friend, Molly (Yvonne Orji), and her unemployed, frequently complacent boyfriend of five years, Lawrence (Jay Ellis). It may be Rae’s show, but it takes very little time to see that both Molly and Lawrence have their own points of insecurity. And over the six episodes sent to critics, Insecure becomes nearly as much Molly’s story, as she struggles with dating culture and her expectations, and Lawrence’s story, as he faces his own expectations for himself and his happiness.
One thing I don’t want to say, even if I’ve already been saying it, is that the insecurities being dealt with in Insecure are “universal,” because the appropriate response to that statement is, “Duh.” Issa feels out-of-the-loop at work and feels like everybody looks to her for answers and then ignores her when she gives them, but it doesn’t “just so happen” that her white boss’s dashiki and picture of President Obama and quoting of African proverbs rubs her the wrong way. Molly worries about her precarious footing as a third-year associate at a law firm and is concerned about mentoring an outspoken young colleague, but it doesn’t “just so happen” that the summer colleague appears to be the only other black woman at the firm. “Just so happens” don’t “just so happen” when you put relatable stories in circumstances where a medium hasn’t frequently let them go.
In Insecure, characters go out for brunch, like everybody on L.A.-set shows, but they do it in restaurants we haven’t seen on TV all the time. They sit in the same darned L.A. traffic, but they do it on freeways heading in directions we haven’t seen on TV all the time. Context is king and a running bit about the kinds of guys you meet on dating apps means something different for Molly here than a swipe left/swipe right joke on another show about unsteady singletons; going to the ocean means something different in Insecure than it means on other L.A.-set shows; and Issa floundering to relate to a classroom of students here means something different than it does when Jess does it on New Girl. Sometimes things that might play for laughs in other comedies are relatively serious in Insecure, while the show happily takes license to laugh at things most shows wouldn’t even approach.
HBO has already made Sunday’s Insecure premiere available online, and it gives a good snapshot of a show that is still working to properly balance generality and specificity, a process that continues over the three-fourths of the season that I’ve seen.
Perhaps not wanting to set itself up for “It’s an African-American Girls in Los Angeles” comparisons, Insecure sometimes feels like it’s containing itself, holding back a little. Issa and Molly have an extended group of friends, including Natasha Rothwell’s Kelli. Rothwell also is a story editor on the show and when the circle of friends expands, Insecure becomes a more provocative and issue-driven show. Particularly the sixth episode, with long, funny and daring conversations about double-standards relating to black masculinity and sexuality, as well as a spot-on theater parody, is going to seem to some viewers like a “better” show, but it feels like the show Insecure only wants to be occasionally, rather than all of the time. Insecure doesn’t want to be a “Group of African-American women get together and tackle subjects of importance to African-American women” show.
And I get that, just as I also get that Issa’s rapping — something she does in a confessional mode into a bathroom mirror, and also when she gets drunk in public — is a recurring device, as are fantasy sequences with Issa imagining best and worse case conversational scenarios, even though Insecure doesn’t want to be the “Young teacher dreams of being a rapper” show or the “Ally McBeal for young black women” show. Perhaps it’s the freedom of her YouTube background, but Rae doesn’t feel like Insecure has to be locked down as any one thing, and sometimes in a 30-minute form that reads as inconsistency or uncertainty. It’s a show finding itself.
Rae also is finding herself as an actor, and I think she’s wisely paired herself with Orji, who comes across as more polished and more comfortable with TV-style comedy. Playing off of Orji lets Rae start out understated and expand her range as the episodes progress. Orji’s own performance starts a little broad, matched to Molly’s persona, but quickly reveals depths. Both main characters are making plenty of bad decisions, and Insecure is likely to be accused, as Girls always has been, of being oblivious to how flawed its heroes are when it’s very keenly aware. Ellis and Y’lan Noel as Issa’s ex, Daniel, are quick to inhabit characters that initially seem like thin love interests.
HBO originally ordered the series from Rae and Wilmore back in 2013, and the process of bringing the show to TV hasn’t always been speedy. That time has, I assume, given Insecure a chance to develop and evolve. It also allowed the need for a show like Insecure to become even more urgent. The Insecure that’s premiering on Sunday is still evolving, and hopefully HBO and audiences will give it time. Rae’s show and voice are a piece of what TV needs, part of a new wave of voices showcased in comedies like Better Things and Atlanta, and I hope both grow only stronger and better.
Cast: Issa Rae, Yvonne Orji, Jay Ellis
Creators: Issa Rae and Larry Wilmore
Premieres: Sunday, 10:30 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)