It can be silly to get upset over Emmy nominations. There is so much television being produced right now that what gets rewarded essentially is arbitrary, at best. But we’re silly as hell and will not apologize for it, and it’s a goddamn travesty that Insecure and its creator-writer-star Issa Rae were ignored in the comedy races.
The first season of HBO’s critically hailed comedy was a landmark in its mere existence: When Insecure premiered last fall, Rae was the first black woman to create and star in her own show since Wanda Sykes’s Wanda at Large in 2003.
Rae had previously achieved a modicum of internet and comedy world fame with her web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, but Insecure announced her as one of Hollywood’s sharpest and cleverest comedic voices—the kind this industry rarely gives a megaphone to (literally once every 13 years).
The show’s first season episode titles—“Insecure as Fuck,” “Messy as Fuck,” “Real as Fuck”—hinted at the show’s loose premise: a woman on the verge of 30 trying to figure out who she is at work, in her relationships, in her friendships, to society, and in her own truth. The result of that journey was often bumbling, heartbreaking, hysterical, profane, relatable, and both unapologetic and, yes, awkward. She screws up all the time, just like everyone does.
There’s something inherently intimate and specific in a TV series created and written by its star, and with Pamela Adlon’s Better Things, Donald Glover’s Atlanta, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, and Aziz Ansari’s Master of None we’re in a sort of golden age of that genre. Insecure’s intrinsic DNA hardly seems as lofty, profound, or message-heavy as those other series often aim to be, but its accomplishment is almost more monumental because of it.
The comedy flies all across the spectrum from nuanced to broad (the pilot climaxes with a rap titled “Broken Pussy”) while always feeling like these characters and situations exist in the real world. And like in the real world, their triumphs and failings are monumental in the moment, but then the characters just move on.
It shouldn’t seem so revolutionary for a TV comedy to be this matter of fact, but it is. Insecure doesn’t set out to make a point about life, it’s just about living it.
When Rae talked to The Daily Beast when the first season aired, she, like her show, managed to be both casual and slyly powerful while talking about the misguided notion that mainstream (white) audiences find it difficult to relate to TV shows about people of color.
“It was like, we’re just living, like you!” she said. “Even as a person of color, there are instances where you do talk about race, but there are lots of instances where you don’t. You’re just like, ‘How am I gonna pay this bill?’ Or ‘What is this job? What am I doing in life?’”
When Season 2 begins, Issa Dee, her Insecure character, still doesn’t have an answer to those questions.
She’s not in a good place following her breakup with boyfriend Lawrence (Jay Ellis), whom she cheated on in the show’s first season. The season opens with a montage of Issa on a slew of horrible Tinder dates, with stilted conversations cleverly edited into a rap.
Lawrence, meanwhile, has already moved in with and is dating a new girl, though their opinions differ when it comes to defining the relationship. Yvonne Orji’s Molly, Issa’s best friend, has transferred her penchant for rapidly dismissing men who are actually good for her to doing the same to therapists.
Each character is experiencing various levels of existential crisis. Issa is struggling to understand who she is as a single woman, and what she even wants from the dating scene. Lawrence is reconciling the freedom that comes with his singlehood and the fact that he might not actually be enjoying it as much one would think. (And given some of the wild sex scenes Lawrence is given in the first crop of episodes given to critics, you’d think he’d be enjoying it a lot.)
Molly, meanwhile, discovers that she’s being paid significantly less than a white male colleague who started at the same time as her and is markedly less productive, an obviously topical issue that becomes more powerful because the show makes no attempt to preach about it. Instead, it explores it through casual conversations Molly has with her friends.
There is hardly anything game-changing about the plots of Insecure—conversations about dating travails, for example, could seem lifted from Sex and the City, were it not for the show’s more realistic, pun-free dialogue—but there are infinite joys to mine from any given episode.
First of all, there are few things more magical on television than scenes in which Issa talks to herself in the mirror, adopting different voices and personalities as she imagines how she would deal with a certain situation with different identities. At one point she turns a jury summons into a sex prop. It is divine.
The humor is brash (the first line of Episode 2 is, “Y’all fucked?!”), but rarely sitcom-y, and even when it veers toward pandering hamminess, like in the scenes at Issa’s work, an after-school program for underprivileged teens called We Got Y’all, it is so damn funny you don’t even mind.
Through the journeys of its three main characters, the show nails early-thirties millennial ennui, a very specific age few shows even attempt to tackle realistically. One key to its success is that the important people in Issa’s life aren’t just foils. They’re rich, interesting characters, sometimes even more interesting than Issa.
It’s also significant that Insecure occupies the time slot once held by Sex and the City on HBO because, like no other show since Girlfriends went off air in 2008, the series depicts great black female friendships with a vitality and breadth hardly ever represented on TV.
As Rae told Deadline earlier this year, “I think for such a long time, I just was not seeing great black female friendships on television. It was constantly about tearing one another down or throwing shade. There are elements of that, but for the most part, black women are essential to my life.”
All this, plus, in a rare turn of the tables, it’s men who more often bare their bodies in the show’s sex scenes, which is a distinct pleasure—especially since Jay Ellis is the star of many of them.
Insecure is a great show. It’s a black show. It’s a current show, and an important show, and an entertaining show. Winter is here on Game of Thrones, the much more popular HBO series that airs before Insecure on Sunday nights. If there was justice, Insecure would soak up even half that kind of buzz. And then, hopefully next year, some Emmys, too.