This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.
Maybe the best .GIF to come from a TV show in the past decade is from Insecure. It features Natasha Rothwell as Kelly. (Easily the most award-worthy “scene-stealing friend of the protagonist” performance of the decade as well, and when are we going to have that conversation?)
She has a deadpan expression on her face and says, “You know what that is? Growth.” As she finishes the statement, she makes a gesture with her hand like a plant sprouting from the earth. Her eyes go a little wide. You laugh, but you also go, “Oh…” It’s hilarious, and it’s poignant.
It’s the perfect .GIF because it’s so versatile. You can use it to be snarky or to be earnest. Brag to your friend that you made dinner instead of ordering delivery for the fifth night in a row. Report back to someone that, yes, you were drunk last night, but, no, you did not text your ex. Tell your coworker that when your boss sent that annoying email, you did not reply back with a passive-aggressive note.
It’s interesting that this .GIF has become a somewhat defining viral moment for Insecure, because it represents so accurately what the series is about and, more than that, actually accomplished—as proven by the four episodes that I’ve seen of the new and final season, which starts Sunday on HBO.
That’s almost too lazy of an observation when it comes to the praise that Insecure, in fine form again as one of the best series on television, deserves, and certainly seems obvious.
This is a coming-of-age series about a woman, Issa (creator and star Issa Rae) and her friends navigating the awkward stages of becoming full-fledged adults, figuring out what that means for their love lives, professional lives, and personal fulfillment. Of course it’s a show about growth, and of course a fifth and final season is going to explore what that looks like.
But I can’t think of a series that has done it better, and then reflected that narrative back on itself in the way that it tells stories and films them. You look at other shows that might be grouped in for tackling similar issues at a similar stage of life—Girls is the easiest comparison, and maybe Broad City or Girlfriends—and you clock where the characters are in the final episodes as growth. In fact, a threshold of growth is narratively the reason to send series like them out to pasture… there’s nowhere left to go.
You don’t get that feeling with Insecure. No one is hitting markers or milestones, or figuring anything out. The series acknowledges that growth, especially from a person’s late twenties to their early thirties, means settling for the reality that you didn’t figure things out and maybe you never will. Whatever epiphanies or awakenings you expected to have about life, whether it’s your career, your relationships, or who you are as a person, don’t actually come—or, when they do, they’re not the seismic events you had been waiting for, or craved.
Light bulbs don’t suddenly go off in your life. Instead, they’re just kind of constantly flickering. Sometimes you notice them, and sometimes you don’t, but there’s enough light to see your way along the path either way. The journey is only ever going to be dimly lit. Being OK with that? That’s growth.
The thing is, that uncertainty and nuance doesn’t scream “this will be great to dramatize on TV.” That’s probably why TV series typically portray growth as a bullet-point checklist of conventional life events.
On Broad City, one of the best friends realizes that taking the next step for her career means leaving New York City for an artist residency in Colorado. In the Girls finale, Hannah has a baby. I haven’t seen how Insecure sticks its landing yet, but what’s struck me about its run so far is its resistance to stick to that checklist. (Though parenthood, as it is when a group of friends are the age of the characters in the show, is a major storyline.)
It’s what has seemed so authentic about the series, and I think why people have rallied around it so much. It sees the potential for drama in the small blips of life, the choices that may not seem extreme to the outside world but are crippling for the individual—moments of growth, realization, and, perhaps more often than we acknowledge, unchangeable or inevitable circumstance that dictate what our life is going to become. These things can be ordinary but, in that, they are extreme. That seems to be what Insecure gets.
This isn’t necessarily a brilliant observation about the series. Insecure is rarely on-the-nose about what it is saying to its audience, but it allows itself that brief indulgence in Sunday’s season five premiere. After these last four seasons, it’s earned.
Issa, Kelly, Molly (Yvonne Orji), and Tiffany (Amanda Seales) go to their 10-year college reunion at Stanford. What other time in a person’s life so squarely necessitates a survey of how they’ve grown and forces them to confront who they’ve become and whether or not that’s met their younger selves’ expectations?
Issa has a conversation with her younger self in the mirror, and College Issa seems surprised that certain things about her life didn’t happen the way she logically assumed they would because of who she thought she was at that age. Later, she is on a panel of alumni entrepreneurs and is asked when she knew she was on the right path. Everyone else on the panel has smart, confident answers. Her answer: She isn’t sure she is.
Everything she has invested in what she is doing now, from money to time to energy, might have been a waste. She could be completely wrong. But isn’t that uncertainty the point? And, even if it isn’t, isn't it just the reality of life? You can’t change that. So why bother trying?
It’s not nihilistic. It’s also not particularly illuminating or wise. It’s just what life is. And maybe that’s growth.
Few shows are as honest about what it means to be an adult and figure out what romance and love means to you as you reach a new stage of life. Few shows are as blunt—and, in that respect, maybe truthful to the point of being cruel—about what friendship is and what you need from it. Most relatably, few shows reveal with such insight how, on that path that you’re not sure you’re supposed to be on where you’re not really figuring things out, you can be your own worst enemy and saboteur.
That can be because of fleeting times when you allow yourself to be selfish or careless or dangerous. The show is truthful about the fact that there’s no safety net for you when that happens. But, metaphorically at least, there is often a trampoline somewhere along that fall, and you have the opportunity to bounce back. Maybe not to the heights you were aiming for at first, but you can be OK with settling where you land.
I can’t imagine the pressure the people who make Insecure felt during its run. It had to be about Black love, Black friendship, and Black excellence, a burden of representation and expectation that is impossible to live up to. It had to be about everybody and for everybody the way they wanted and how they wanted to see it. That’s an impossible mandate. But I think the show realized that it couldn’t juggle everything. And besides, you know who juggles? A clown.
It’s a show that knew who Issa is, who Molly and Lawrence and these characters are, and allowed that to guide the way. And as the series went on, it became deeper. It got more cinematic, perhaps the most beautifully framed and shot comedy on TV. And it had the courage to lean into seriousness. Some episodes could have been entered in drama categories at the Emmys, and deserved to win.
Now, it’s a show that knows when it’s time to say goodbye, too. More than anything else, that’s growth.