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HBO’s Insecure takes the “aimless twentysomething” cliché and makes it feel entirely new

Issa Rae’s new comedy makes the daring choice to show the intimate lives of black people without fanfare

Molly (Yvonne Orij) and Issa (Rae) are best friends just trying to figure it out
HBO

We’ve heard the premise, “aimless twentysomethings try to figure out their shit” approximately a million times, but somehow, Insecure manages to make it feel like an entirely new idea.

HBO’s new comedy was created by and stars Issa Rae, the writer/actress whose webseries Misdventures of Awkward Black Girl earned her both invested fans and development deals. After experimenting with a possible ABC series produced by Shonda Rhimes and writing a book of personal essays, Rae has now landed on HBO. And with Insecure, she and her talented conspirators — from co-creator Larry Wilmore to Lemonade director Melina Matsoukas — have created a show unlike anything else on the network.

Part of that distinction belongs to the fact that Insecure, set in south Los Angeles, features more black people than otherwise exist across the entire rest of HBO’s programming — and never shies away from that fact. (Which, good! After all, why should it?)

Case in point: Insecure’s premiere opens on Issa (played by Rae) having to answer to a classroom of black elementary school kids who want to know why she talks “like a white girl” and moves on to show how she deals with her oblivious white co-workers who never notice when they’re treating her differently — though she sure does.

As Rae said at this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour, too much of media gives voice to the idea that “there’s a universal way to be black.” She doesn’t expect that Insecure will resonate for every black person, because it’s not about all black people, but about specific people who just so happen to be black.

It is, frankly, pathetic that Insecure is some sort of anomaly, when all it wants to do is tell the story of black people living, loving, and fucking up like dozens of shows starring white people have gotten to for years.

Luckily for us, though, Insecure takes those examples, and then does it better.

With Rae at the center, Insecure has a focused confidence that’s rare for new shows

Issa raps it out.
HBO

Again, the focuses of Insecure are familiar ones: Issa is an indecisive 29 year-old dissatisfied with the direction in which her life’s heading, while her best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji) tries to reconcile the gulf between succeeding at her high-powered law firm and flailing around in her romantic life.

The brilliant thing about Insecure is that it acknowledges that these conflicts are more or less inevitable, before moving on to explore them through the very specific perspectives of Issa, Molly, and even Issa’s well-meaning boyfriend, Lawrence (Jay Ellis).

Rae, playing a fictionalized version of herself, slips into the role of Issa with obvious enthusiasm. And while many are — rightly — highlighting the fact that she created and writes the show, Rae’s stellar acting also deserves mentioning, for everything from Issa’s dry disdain for bullshit, to the increasingly confident raps she spits at the mirror to hype herself up, to her heartbreak when things run off the rails.

As Molly and Lawrence, Orji and Ellis each dive fully into their characters, especially Molly’s determined optimism and Lawrence’s scattered focus. Orji in particular is the perfect counterpart to Rae; every one of their characters’s conversations feels like the worn-in, lovingly shit-giving banter of friends so old they can’t be bothered to censor themselves anymore.

“Be specific” sounds like a simple thing, but specificity is like really good olive oil; it makes every TV show better, but it’ll feel so natural that you hardly even notice. Being specific rather than defaulting to clichés or benign standbys is an underrated weapon for both comedies and dramas, but it takes a clear vision to find that kind of detail.

Most shows need at least several episodes to get there; Insecure knows what it is and who its characters are right from the start.

Insecure excels at portraying flawed people who aren’t just oblivious jerks

Lawrence (Jay Ellis) and Issa on the couch that’s followed them throughout their relationship
HBO

If this sounds glib, let me be clear that this is a really hard thing to write.

Seinfeld is widely considered to be one of the best sitcoms out there because it dared to shove its characters’s myopic narcissism in our cringing, sympathetic faces and still make us laugh. But that came at the cost of making its characters the kind of people who might be fun to overhear at a neighboring table in passing rather than actually spend time with, since they’d probably just rip you to shreds and crack a vicious joke about it.

Though Rae told me during the TCA tour Insecure was inspired in part by Seinfeld co-creator Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm, her show manages to walk the line between “flawed” and “obliviously awful” in a way David’s shows never did.

One of the smartest things Insecure does, for example, is refuse to break up Issa and Lawrence in the first episode. While many comedies start with a breakup (and/or an unceremonious job firing), Insecure lets Issa flirt with that possibility before she realizes she doesn’t want to — or maybe just can’t bear it, for now.

As I talked about with Rae at the TCA tour, it would’ve been so much easier to break that couple up and send Issa off on wacky L.A. dating adventures with Molly. But making us live in Issa’s hesitation makes Insecure feel much more intimate, not to mention conflicted as we get to know both Issa and Lawrence better.

And in a bit of a twist, the show doesn’t let Issa — or Molly, or Lawrence, or anyone — get away with their mistakes.

Issa is funny and admirably straightforward, but also indulges her indecisiveness so much that it becomes selfish. Molly’s driven and eager, but sometimes gets so wrapped up in her vision of perfection that she loses sight of what the people around her are actually feeling. Lawrence is smart and kind, but lacks motivation.

In other words: they’re actual, believable people. It’s easy to root for them even as it hurts to watch them stumble — a combination that makes Insecure an immediate force to be reckoned with.

Insecure premieres October 9 on HBO at 10:30 pm. The first episode is currently available on HBO Go and HBO Now.