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‘Insecure’ Surpasses Expectations, Especially When Its Characters Don’t (Or Throw Them Off)

It’s been weeks now since Insecure (HBO) finished up its first season, and I still have its contents moving around in my mind.

The show had pretty much everything. Romance! Workplace drama! Identity issues! Betrayals! But really, above all, it was another example in this possible new golden age of black art that was about black people just living in the lives they have.

And I was here for it. All of it. In all of Issa Rae’s awkward, Los Angeles blackness.

Insecure was worth the wait

How often do you get to say that about something you’ve been waiting a few years for? Issa Rae first got noticed with The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl in 2011. She signed a development deal with HBO in 2013.

We had to wait three years before Insecure came out, and it was every bit of quality that was expected from her. We got the observational, witty depiction of black women as full-bodied, imperfect, fascinating human beings living some everyday life. In following Issa Dee (Rae) and her friend Molly (Yvonne Orji), we get two black women who appear to have it together, yet beneath the surface are looking for something more as they exit their 20s.

 

An HBO show about black people that didn’t ground itself in pathology or black struggle

How often do black folks get a TV show that’s just about living life? It’s still so tough to get away from the pathology angle.

Even The Wire, as good and complex and layered as it was with its characters, couldn’t escape that. The show was full of people who frightened you, cheered you up, made you laugh, or straight-up broke your heart. But it was about the forces roiling through a large American city, which meant showing West Baltimore in its hopeless desolation.

Insecure spends its time with black people in many walks of life. College-educated people of varying socioeconomic status (Issa at the nonprofit, Molly at her law firm), the dude working at the Enterprise Rent-A-Car. And while Issa and Lawrence are young professionals, their next-door neighbor is a straight-up member of the Bloods gang who pronounces C-words with B’s, while being a dedicated father. (This leads to a great exchange in which his daughter says it’s time to go watch the “Bare” Bears.)

I particularly liked how Insecure depicted the ’hood kids enrolled in the nonprofit group We Got Y’all. The show kicks off with them asking way-too-personal questions of Issa and displaying the prejudices handed down to them, such as the comment about “bitter black women.” Those kids were alternately endearing, hard-edged, casually mean, and occasionally nice. In other words, they were kids.


The communion with Mara Brock Akil

Given the years of familiarity with Issa Rae’s comedy and content matter, I was ready for Insecure to be about the issues around professional, single black women navigating their lives and coming to terms with whatever goals they had set for themselves. That there may be a metaphorical “list” of career, man, family, etc., and that it may not all come together as planned.

In essence, Insecure reminded me a lot about the TV shows created by Mara Brock Akil, who created Girlfriends, The Game, and Being Mary Jane. Each show, with black women at its center, deals with the expectations, joys and insecurities that live at the intersection of black and woman.

To watch the character of Molly the lawyer, Issa’s best friend, is to be reminded of Toni from Girlfriends: the professional woman with round-the-way roots, unlucky in love and preoccupied with status, all while with a nagging insecurity that she’s, in some way, broken. And she too has a four-person set of girlfriends, whose trip to Malibu felt like its own riff on a Girlfriends episode.

Lawrence, Issa’s boyfriend, is played by Jay Ellis, who portrayed pro football player Bryce “Blue” Westbrook on The Game. On that show, he was the ambitious one hamstrung by his own overblown expectations, which led to, shall we say, fuckboy behavior.

Issa, who appears to be an introvert, raps in the mirror at herself monologues stumbling over her indecisions. Another indecisive lead character often stuck on herself? Joan from Girlfriends, or Melanie from The Game.

Rae continues in Brock Akil’s footsteps with Insecure, while getting to be more blunt in tackling those expectations and insecurities in the Instagram/Twitter era as black women bond over #BlackGirlMagic, and fend off hatred known as misogynoir. That so much misogynoir comes from black men cuts even deeper. In this world, no wonder Issa Rae can drop the rap song “Broken Pussy” right in the first episode.

 

Negotiations with the white gaze

Issa at We Got Y’all, being the only black person working at a nonprofit primarily serving black youth, has to deal with tokenism. She withers under the burden of representation, highlighted by Issa’s interior righteous freak-outs versus her outward cool.

Insecure leans into the notion of “imposter syndrome,” in which minorities question their own worth or qualifications after others have done so for so long. The show nails that paranoia of folks possibly conspiring against you, or at least laughing at you behind your back, when Issa catches adversarial co-workers texting slights against her. The moments of her co-workers’ comeuppance once Issa gets her professional life in order become all the sweeter.

Molly does her own negotiation with the white gaze when she attempts impress upon the new intern Rasheeda, the tool of code-switching. At first, the show presents Rasheeda as a rival to Molly, who was the only black woman in the office, under the dynamic of black folks often trying to “out-black” each other in a white space.

Molly gets a moment of triumph in pushing back on a white boss to get Rasheeda to tone down, but it’s a pyrrhic victory when she sees Rasheeda surrounded by white executives likely saying she’s “too loud.”

And, as I have from time to time in my life, Issa replies “slavery” as an answer to a white co-worker’s question about a stereotype.

 

I wasn’t expecting the sex to be this real

While it’s still uncommon to see black people loving each other or romantic together on TV, it’s even more uncommon to see those black people having sex together. Insecure went there and back for more.

We had sexy shower time, which with a normal-sized tub/shower situation almost always turns into a disaster (the person in back gets no hot water!) and a horrific accident waiting to happen (slippery surfaces, y’all).

We saw awkward sex that doesn’t work and just isn’t going anywhere.  We saw guilty sex. We had the kind of comedic, explicit sex between Molly and Jered that you were used to in premium cable shows from Dream On to Californication. The dirty talk. The skin slapping.

We had super-hot, pent-up-for-years sex between Issa and Daniel, which also was stepping-out-on-my-man sex. The lighting and blue-toned cinematography in this darkened studio added to the clandestine nature of the coupling. The sheen on the dark skin of their bodies that reminded me of the colors in Moonlight. The shots of thrusting, of rise and fall, and the faces of mutual pleasure to show this was the magical sex Issa had been lacking and pining for.

And we had broken-hearted revenge sex between Lawrence and Tasha, also known as the backshots heard ’round the world. How could any viewer sit with Issa on that bouch as she bawled her eyes out over Lawrence, when we just saw what he was doing? And that, the more you thought about it, both of them were wrong in that moment?

That may be the most enduring thing about Insecure. Through its everyday depictions of characters that felt real, there’s always more to think about in this show. It speaks to a generation while not proclaiming its own importance.

It swims.

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