Early in the
Season 2 premiere of Insecure
, Issa Rae’s HBO comedy about black thirtysomethings who live and love recklessly in Los Angeles, Molly (Yvonne Orji) discovers her co-worker has been getting paid more than her. Upon first seeing the check, she radiates with a smile that cuts from cheek to cheek, but soon realizes it was a mailroom mishap; the check was for her white male colleague. On most shows, the chance to interrogate the wage gap would make it the B plot, if not the episode’s centerpiece—but Rae and her adept writer’s room choose not to dwell on the moment for too long. The episode, much like life, keeps moving to the real foci: Issa (Rae’s fictional self), who continues to flounder at the education nonprofit she works for, and Lawrence (Jay Ellis), who’s making his way through a post-breakup haze and into newfound bachelorhood.
You would do well to pay close attention to the pacing of the show: cool and casual, its eyes forward. Molly’s discovery is worth a head-shaking pause, and the episode could easily be anchored to this particular issue. Traditionally, on sitcoms like A Different World
and Family Matters
and especially now on modern interpretations like Blackish
, it would have been. There, issues perch at the center of the show, with its characters circling in orbit, each one bringing their own baggage to the table. But Insecure
is a different kind of comedic outfit: it tackles issues by not
, by refusing to tether an entire episode to one Very Special Moment, the way Blackish has increasingly done. Here, the moments come and go, and come again.
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The borders of storytelling are more porous this season, and Insecure
triumphs because of it. (Molly’s unequal-pay subplot resurfaces, still seamlessly, from time to time throughout the first few episodes.) Though streaming has expanded the shape and narrative structure of television—the look and feel of shows hue widely these days; it is not uncommon for Netflix dramas to mirror the charm and quality of auteur-driven indie films—Rae slyly plays within the long-established boundaries of TV-making to refreshing effect.
’s frame, the window through which we view Issa’s starts and stops, provides just one
representation in the larger quilted experience that is black life. (The creator-star has been careful to say as much
.) By working within conventional strictures—that customarily have not been where shows about The Black Experience™ reside—the show has flourished, getting sharper and more assured.
In one early-season scene, Lawrence is pulled over by the police for a questionable violation. The brief exchange is tense, but Lawrence continues with his day, hours later stumbling into a threesome that quickly veers absurd: who he is doesn’t quite match the black mandingo abstraction his partners assumed him to be. Whereas The Carmichael Show
, nothing if not cantankerous in its capacity to deal with issues head on, would devote an entire episode around Driving While Black or interracial romps, Insecure
takes a more quotidian approach to these flashpoints—they’re simply part of the day
, which at times makes for more cutting commentary. ( Atlanta
, for its part, carves out a space somewhere between the two, straddling the line between reality, situational farce, and morose surrealism). Rae plays it straight up, her exploits pulled from the sometimes-thorny, sometimes-comical, but mostly-confusing bits of life. There is the occasional dreamlike mindslip, however, in which Issa marauds her way through awkward encounters via a freestyle or bad-girl theatrics; in one imagined sequence, she punches Lawrence’s new on-off girlfriend, shouting “You just got jalapeno-popped!”
The thrill and beauty of Insecure
is how the many issues it touches on inform one another; whether glanced at or luxuriated in, they never stand alone. Rae knows that all these things live collectively in the same ecosystem. Personal and professional obstacles—be they emotional, financial, or racial—don’t come to a halt just because you’ve discovered a co-worker’s increased salary or because you’ve been stopped by the police. The clamor of the world is constant. Think of it as a truer reflection of the daily onslaught thirtysomethings battle while trying to make sense of life, love, and work. It’s messy, sure, but relevant all the same.