Issa (Issa Rae) has a job she’s ambivalent about, a boyfriend she contemplates breaking up with daily, and a best friend who’s basically a lifeline. In other words, she’s in her 20s. If the premise of Insecure sounds like scant scaffolding to hang a series on in 2016, the execution is something else. Co-creator/co-writer/star Rae, who first gained notice for the excellent web series Awkward Black Girl, has delivered a fresh, sharp-edged comedy that swerves past nearly every cliché.
Fans of ABG will recognize the rhythms of Rae’s storytelling, though the casting around her, and nearly all the plot details, have been tweaked. (As have the production values — lord love a premium-cable budget — and the team behind it: Larry Wilmore, recently freed from his Nightly Show duties, is also billed as co-creator.) Here, Rae’s onscreen alter ego toils listlessly at an L.A. nonprofit aimed at inner-city youth instead of a weight-loss call center, and her work world has been turned almost entirely white, leaving her to reluctantly fill the role of Designated Black Explainer. (Or not; she happily feigns ignorance of “on fleek.”)
Like most marginally committed office drones, she dreams of a more fulfilling career. In the meantime, she’s largely consumed by petty office politics and whatever moments she can steal to sneak off to the conference room to deal with her personal life: making plans with her sleek, perpetually single lawyer friend Molly (Yvonne Orji); furtively texting an ex; or avoiding the calls of her longterm boyfriend Lawrence (Jay Ellis), a sweet but underachieving guy whose future is all big dreams and blurred edges.
The one place where Issa seems to come fully into herself is the bathroom mirror: It’s her state-of-the-union spot, a private workshop for wrangling her thoughts through self-penned raps that are more like profane, pop culture-saturated pep talks. (A comparatively SFW sample: “Do you want your man or not? / Do you know your plans or not? / You gonna go back home or not? / You gonna claim your throne or not? / Is you Khaleesi, or…that other bitch whose name I don’t remember?”)
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It would be easy to define Insecure as some kind of intersectional catnip, a weekly televised clearinghouse for lessons on race and feminism and What It Means to Be a Millennial. There will surely be viewers who do come out wiser, and that can only be a good thing. Insecure has way too much going for it, though, to be reduced to the-more-you-know tropes. Whether Issa’s confronting a classroom full of tiny insult comics disguised as 9 year olds, freestyling a riff on sad vaginas at an open-mic night, or utterly failing at shower sex, she is, well, pretty awkward. But also smart, funny, and unfailingly real. And so is her show. A-