Even in a world with Shondaland, a series whose star, creator, writer, or executive producer is a black woman remains an exception. With her new HBO series, Issa Rae has become all of those things and more. But that doesn’t mean she’s trying to be all things to all (black) people. Insecure is profound, but mostly for its simplicity. The show follows Rae’s alter ego Issa, who lives and works in Los Angeles. That’s pretty much it. Well, that, and it’s incisive, poignant, and hilarious, which is an all-too-rare combination. Insecure isn’t a show about nothing, but it’s also not trying to be about something.
Insecure’s scope is both narrow and expansive: It centers on one woman and her relatable experiences. There’s relationship drama and a somewhat unfulfilling job, but viewers will empathize with Issa’s optimism as much as her self-doubt. This a woman who’s down, but never out. Music video director Melina Matsoukas, who helmed multiple episodes of the first season, frames the radiant Rae like the star she is, whether she’s struggling to look motivated in her cubicle, or pumping herself up in her own bathroom for a night out.
Rae executive produces with Larry Wilmore, whose incisiveness is evident, and showrunner Prentice Penny (previously of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Happy Endings), who ratchets up the absurdity. When offense is given—either through ignorance or more active racism—there’s plenty of pointed humor, which is doled out with stinging bits rather than a cudgel. It’s a reflection of Rae’s lived experiences, but even though she’s had to suffer fools, she isn’t weighed down by the conflict. Issa remains buoyant and confident, the show’s title notwithstanding.
There’s no capital-letter message here, but Rae’s portrayal of a black woman’s life is still revolutionary. Issa has a job, a man (albeit one she’s ambivalent about), and great friends. She’s educated, talented, and woke—and also occasionally petty, unreliable, and, well, insecure. She works for a non-profit organization, but she’s not trying to save the world. Issa also deals with loneliness, stress, and money problems, yet isn’t defined by her troubles. Her stability and success aren’t exceptional—even in a country this unwelcoming, many black Americans are still thriving—but the show’s matter-of-fact treatment of them is.
The key is in the storytelling, which rarely ever spells things out, unless it’s for comedic effect—say, to keep up a profane conversation with a neighbor with your toddler by your side. In more appropriate company, Insecure gets filthy quick, though—just look at the episode titles, which are all punctuated with “as fuck.” But an eloquence is achieved with these obscenities. It’s not just “bugging out” over “zero dick” or indulging in some “bootleg and chill.” Insecure also gifts the world with “aggressively passive,” a term Issa uses to describe herself when she feigns ignorance about how to determine if something is “on fleek” or not. And when her best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji) is asked to curb the “enthusiasm” (i.e., mannerisms) of the only other black woman at her law firm, she refuses to be the “black translator” for her white bosses. No one invokes the “black tax,” but we do see characters urging each other to “just work harder” to prove themselves.
But those grim realities don’t take any of the shine off of Rae and the rest of Insecure’s cast. No one ever stumbles much over these bumps in the road—there’s a sunniness to all of the proceedings. Everyone’s quick-witted and charming, including Jay Ellis as Issa’s boyfriend Lawrence. All of the relationships feel lived-in, especially Molly and Issa’s. It makes it that much more believable to see them carve out an hour in a busy workday to talk on the phone, or threaten some unknown blogger with a lawsuit. When they hum the Girlfriends theme song to each other, it’s both natural and referential. Which is perfect for a show that’s steeped in pop culture. All the players have a way with swear words, but they also effortlessly work in references to everything from Bumble to Drake to Chris Rock’s Top Five.
That relevance carries into the soundtrack, which deserves an official release. There’s TT The Artist, Kendrick Lamar, the aforementioned Drake, and an original score by Raphael Saadiq. (Off the soundtrack, “Classic Man” Jidenna pops up as a love interest.) And, of course, Issa provides a soundtrack within the show, dropping bars at bars or in pep talks to herself. These moments are introspective, but mostly, they’re just fun. Issa enjoys her life, and that happiness is a defiant act. Or it would be, if Rae wanted to focus on such things—well, even if she doesn’t.