Yvonne Orji, Issa Rae, Amanda Seales, and Natasha Rothwell.EXPAND
Yvonne Orji, Issa Rae, Amanda Seales, and Natasha Rothwell.
Justina Mintz/HBO

Insecure Offers TV’s Sharpest Insights on Race but Refuses to Limit Itself to That Subject

No moment captures the elations of HBO’s Insecure better than the opening scene of the sophomore season’s second episode. The morning after sleeping with a former lover, Issa (Issa Rae) recounts her confusion about the abrupt quickie to her snappish best friend, Molly (Yvonne Orji). A corporate lawyer with the icily sexy bob to match, Molly just wants the facts: “What kind of fuck was it — a we-back-together fuck, or a fuck-you fuck?” Issa is as unsure as Harriet Tubman is steely-eyed in the daguerreotype printed on her sweatshirt. Their teasing, supportive, slightly codependent bond makes for TV’s best female friendship after Broad City’s: Rae and Orji’s relaxed chemistry practically crackles, and many of their playful exchanges demand appreciation, if not a guffaw. (Molly’s dismissal of her black female therapist: “Dr. Rhonda was always putting her shit on me, just ’cause we both got brown titties.”) Like the BFFs, the HBO comedy is woke yet lively, sexually blunt but most interested in matters of the heart.

That should be enough. Based on the first four installments of the new season, co-creator Rae and showrunner Prentice Penny haven’t made major changes to Insecure’s tone or focus. And so it remains a series I wrestle with while watching, because I want more from it while recognizing that I have no right to ask for it.

Insecure is what it is: a relatively low-stakes hangout sitcom in which the characters sometimes chat freshly and incisively about race and gender — but more often dwell on their 30-and-still-looking love lives. Season 2 seems to center on educational nonprofit coordinator Issa’s efforts to woo back Lawrence (Jay Ellis), whom she dated for five years and finally cheated on last year because she wanted a man who hadn’t spent the last 24 months unemployed and seemingly glued to the couch. Now working at a tech startup, Lawrence is torn between Issa, his rebound boo, Tasha (Dominique Perry), and the depths of caddishness he didn’t know he was capable of. Molly discovers that she’s being paid less than a white male colleague at work and vows to charm her way up the corporate ladder — no matter how much hockey-related schmoozing that entails. Are these relatable situations? Sure, sorta. Are they interesting enough to sustain attention for half an hour? Not always.

A comedy about a trio of upwardly mobile black Angelenos who fret about their dates and their careers — just as any number of white characters do — matters by virtue of its very existence. Insecure could even be called daring, in that it aims the camera on the mundanities of the lives of black middle- and upper-middle-class women. Its creators have succeeded in stirring debate: Last year’s season finale caused a small but passionate confab about whether Issa is too good for Lawrence or vice versa. That conversation is likely to continue with Lawrence’s upcoming plot lines, which find him both a seductive conquistador and a sexual conquest. Rae is able to showcase her awkward-clown physical comedy in a charming if familiar awkward-first-date montage. More movingly, this new season combines that physical comedy with funny-sad observations about what it’s like to hook up after being in a five-year relationship. When one booty call reaches for her breasts, she can’t stop giggling at his “funny” fingers. Her lack of game extends to her goodbyes: “Thank you so much for your hospitality.”

And yet the race-related scenes are so thorny and sharply specific that I can’t help wishing Insecure had more of them — a lot more of them. It’s not fair to insist that all black-centric TV series focus relentlessly on race, but this particular show happens to be more interesting when it looks at sex, romance and work through a racial lens. One of the upcoming installments’ best jokes is about how, after watching the mass-incarceration documentary 13th, Issa’s white partner, Frieda (Lisa Joyce), sought director Ava DuVernay’s approval for her Netflix choices on Twitter. And one of the most promising story lines involves Issa and Frieda butting heads because the black woman, over the white woman’s protests, wants to ignore an African-American principal’s anti-Latino racism. (He calls his Hispanic students “taco meat.”) I can’t wait to see how that resolves. But the show’s slack pacing means I’ll probably be waiting for a while yet — which leaves me plenty of time for talking myself into appreciating Insecure on its own terms.

Insecure returns July 23 on HBO.

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