In Insecure, Issa Rae plays a woman named Issa who teaches at a Los Angeles middle school, lives with a boyfriend she’s having doubts about, and constantly mulls over her life options with her best friend, Molly (Yvonne Orji). On this slender premise, show co-creators Rae and Larry Wilmore have hung a beautifully detailed, often very funny, always lovable sitcom.
If “lovable” seems like a weak or sentimental word to use, it’s not — Issa Rae radiates a kind of charm and decency in portraying the show’s Issa as a young woman trying to find love in her private life and respect in her professional life. Her most frequent expression is a quizzical smile — it’s the game face this particular black woman wears when dealing with the (mostly) white people she works with, people who tiptoe around matters of race and usually stumble into saying the wrong things to her. One of the best things Insecure does is subtly portray the strain on Issa placed by those situations — many of which may have been experienced by viewers.
To be sure, a lot of Insecure is straight-up comedy, and often the comedy of romance. In the six episodes HBO made available for review, Insecure charts the ups and mostly downs of Issa’s relationship with her live-in boyfriend, Lawrence (the irresistible Jay Ellis), a guy who initially seems like a slacker layabout but who is soon revealed to be a sensitive man who’s feeling trapped by his limited employment options. As his pride is threatened, so is his confidence in his life with Issa.
Issa is a much more confident woman, bursting with enthusiasm and ideas for the school she works in, and in her off-hours, a fun girl to be with. The great proof of this is a scene in the first episode in which she goes to a club, picks up a mic and improvises a funny rap about bad sex whose title I can’t print here. But that clever word-spit will come to haunt Issa in subsequent half-hours.
So where does Issa’s show-title insecurity come from? From her bedrock conviction that she’s probably not worthy of a good man, that perhaps the smiling, chipper image she presents to her co-workers is perceived as a false front. For all its laughs, Insecurity delves into the ways we put on masks to try on personalities that might help stave off embarrassment or depression.
Rae came to cult prominence with her Web series Awkward Black Girl, and Insecure is an extension of those Internet shorts — with a bigger budget. Behind the camera, the show is notable not only for Wilmore, the recently deposed Nightly Show host, as a producer, but also for the number of women who write and direct episodes. In particular, Melina Matsoukis, over multiple episodes, exhibits a directorial style that captures Los Angeles in a lovely perpetual twilight.
Insecure is a show with great confidence — Rae immediately sweeps you up and carries you along on her journey of false starts, little triumphs, and big disappointments. You’ll want to follow TV-Issa wherever she goes.
Insecure airs Sunday nights at 10:30 p.m. ET on HBO.