Issa Rae's sublime "Insecure": HBO's new witty, ironic portrayal of young single professionals hits fresh and familiar notes

The "Awkward Black Girl" creator's new HBO comedy centers on the young single black female experience

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published October 5, 2016 4:56PM (EDT)

Issa Rae in "Insecure"   (Insecure)
Issa Rae in "Insecure" (Insecure)

There are “Girls” viewers, and there are “Girlfriends” viewers. While I cannot accurately say “and never the twain shall meet,” it’s a safe guess that a greater portion of “Girlfriends” viewers enjoy “Girls” than the other way around.

This is worth contemplating as we near the debut of HBO’s “Insecure,” a series created by and starring Issa Rae. The eight-episode first season debuts Sunday at 10:30 p.m., but the premiere is currently available to subscribers on the channel’s streaming platform. Whichever way a person chooses to view it, she’ll find a fresh, witty take on living single in a big city, experienced by female characters whose perspectives are rarely examined, while navigating locations and spaces seldom explored in today’s TV landscape.

Now, that sentence easily and accurately could have been written about Lena Dunham’s “Girls” when it premiered in 2012.

Back then, that half hour was hailed as a wry, original take on what life was like for young single women in modern-day New York as well as being pilloried for its exclusion of minorities, a critique the show’s writers addressed by casting Donald Glover in a minor role in the show’s second season but then basically shirked off.

Dunham’s friends are almost exclusively white, and that’s also true of her writers’ room. As a number of critics pointed out back then, it made less sense to criticize the creator for failing to reflect diversity in her series than the system that employs her.

Flash forward to 2016 and the rise of Rae, whose web series “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl” made her an internet sensation and won the attention of “Insecure” co-creator Larry Wilmore. Here we have a show that’s not only being created by an African-American woman, but it also has a black man, Prentice Penny, acting as its showrunner and is executive produced by Melina Matsoukas, who directs four of its episodes.

Progress? Maybe not in terms of moving industry stats as whole but when it comes to HBO, we’ll take it.

“Insecure” invites us into the lives of Rae’s character Issa and her best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji), two women who spend much of each day existing in inescapable irony. Issa works at a stupidly named nonprofit called We Got Y’all, dedicated to helping inner-city minority children. As the organization’s youth liaison, she is the one who interacts with the kids. She’s also the only black person on its staff.

Molly, a corporate attorney, embodies the frustrations of the modern professional black woman. She’s an expert in code-switching — the ability to appear one way to the white world and another among black folks — which makes her an asset in the workplace. As Issa puts it, Molly is like the Will Smith of corporate: “White people loooove Molly. Black people also loooove Molly.

But neither Molly nor Issa have successful personal lives. Molly dates like it’s her second job but can’t figure out why the men she has dinner with stop calling her back. Issa, meanwhile, has a live-in boyfriend, Lawrence (Jay Ellis), an unemployed slacker who can’t catch a break — although, in his case, it does seem to be for lack of trying.

Without overtly doing so, in “Insecure’s” initial moments Rae dares the HBO viewer to categorize each of these characters based on conventions assigned by all-too-typical media portrayals.

One of the first scenes featuring Issa at her workplace shows her co-worker Frieda (Lisa Joyce) citing statistical evidence proving that the kids they’re trying to help are, in essence, doomed. Along the way Frieda helpfully spits out data that damns Rae’s overall odds to find love and happiness as a highly educated African-American woman.

And it's this jumping-off point that makes “Insecure” such a creative delight, both in terms of its comedy and its larger cultural significance. Whereas other series are simple reflections of the Hollywood sausage-factory mentality, sprinkling minorities into series in response to critiques about racially homogeneous casting, “Insecure” places viewers inside the skins of these characters like any good show would and without explicitly calling out the specificity of their experience.

Thus, it soon becomes clear that Molly's failures at romantic love have less to do with her educational and social status than the fact that she’s thirsty, coming on too strongly too quickly.

Issa, like many of us, behaves most like herself when nobody’s looking. Bathroom mirrors are stand-ins for her diary, allowing her to blow off steam, try on new personalities like lipstick shades (which Rae does to sensational effect during a sequence in the series opener) and talk herself through various quandaries.

And Lawrence could just be a great guy struggling with situational depression — who wouldn’t be if he or she were out of work for a long time? — whose girlfriend suffers from the twin afflictions all too common for 20-somethings: impatience and selfishness. (This is not exclusive to millennials, understand: Gen Xers, boomers, everybody is fond of navel gazing at that age.)

Are Issa's and Molly’s difficulties attributable to the extra obstacles they face as black professional women in Los Angeles, a city with distinct and ridiculous standards of attractiveness and status? Or are they really just getting in their own way? The answers are yes and probably.

For the personal relationships of its characters, “Insecure” follows the classic ensemble comedy structure without abandoning its sense of awareness and identity. Issa and Molly continue the long tradition of female friendship archetypes dating back to Lucy and Ethel, and Mary and Rhoda, making the story’s proposal familiar, with the added accessibility granted by Rae and Orji’s infectious chemistry.

Where “Insecure” is at its sharpest and most singular is in the way it knits comedy out of the tangle of challenges that black women face in the workplace. We’re shown Issa’s We Got Y’all meetings from her point of view, using camera angles and editing techniques that make it look like she’s living in a slow-moving nightmare. But no, she really is the only chip in this cookie of cluelessness.

Her colleagues display no trust in her, having separate conversations and email threads about her perceived abilities and ideas while smiling to her face. This is not tension manufactured for television; it’s a situation that African-American women confront everywhere, every day.

Molly has to look runway ready at her law firm and smile brightly as she witnesses one of her junior colleagues, an Asian-American woman, landing a black suitor with little effort while her own dating efforts mirror that of a Homeric odyssey. To the average viewer, Molly is simply adhering to TV-series fashion standards; black female viewers who also watch “Scandal” and nodded at Papa Pope’s statement about being twice as good to get half as much know better.

The world of “Insecure” invites all comers without losing connection to this take on the black experience, a balancing act all top comedies can pull off but with the bonus of genuine cultural candor.

“My dad said ain’t nobody checking for bitter-assed black women no more,” a kid tells in Issa early on in the show. That statement is borne out of a frustrating stereotype and sadly it’s an attitude that applies to the television industry as a whole. Here it’s worth noting that “Girlfriends” ran for eight seasons, first on UPN and then on The CW, yet rarely moved beyond past comparisons to its HBO contemporary “Sex and the City.” Both series occupy a special affectionate place in the hearts of their fans, but “Girlfriends” was denied a proper series finale: The CW reportedly offered the cast half of their usual salaries to film it, which they turned down.

And Issa has an appropriate response to the aforementioned rude kid: “Tell your dad that black women aren’t bitter. They’re just tired of being expected to settle for less.”

Giving “Insecure” a prominent home on HBO lends a premium channel that still overwhelmingly caters to a white, upper-class professional demographic some actual diversity cred, which is terrific. Its larger accomplishment of showcasing Rae’s talents and underrepresented characters in a sublime comedy is worth celebrating. Whether viewers choose to do that with their girls or their girlfriends is completely up to them.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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