In an anecdotal survey, friends of the person who wrote this thing you're now reading gave the premiere episode of Insecure, HBO's new comedy that premieres Sunday, so-so reviews. Specific reasons were hard to pin down but, having watched six episodes, this person still bizarrely writing in the third person believes those reasons to be as follows:
1. Insecure moves slowly
It's easy to get enthralled with the gorgeous patina and creative shots executed by director Melina Matsoukas -- who's helped Rihanna, Beyonce and more make arresting music videos — but the truth is that the story inches along. Not much is happening besides the workplace, friendships and dating misadventures of head character Issa Dee. Issa Dee is, of course, based on Issa Rae, whose webseries Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl, morphed into the show.
2. Issa's newbie actress status shows
Issa sometimes gets upstaged by her co-stars, especially the terrific Yvonne Orji, who plays her best friend Molly. In contrast to Issa's perennially disoriented and awkward Issa, Molly is confident, corporate and cute in her Fendi pumps and such. She's an It girl, even though she's a bit of a mess too, and Orji owns it.
3. Insecure isn't driven by plot or slapstick or situation
Most of the things you've come to appreciate about sitcoms aren't here. The escalation of the absurd — you know, the scenarios that have sitcom characters locked outside in their underwear or on a job interview with the woman they cursed out in the grocery store earlier — isn't what Insecure is made of.
Ok! Now that's out of the way, this writer must say that he enjoyed it very much.
Like the series and book it's adapted from, Insecure wrings the funny out of the deliberately mundane, seemingly inconsequential occurrences that, for awkward people, make time slow down. Anxiety might be a better framework for explaining it: In the eyes of the anxious, the everyday things everyone else seems to do without much drama — opening an unexpected letter from your doctor, say, or running into someone you used to date — are sufficient reasons to plan your funeral or begin looking for apartments in France. Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David and Woody Allen have employed small nations of people by mastering this type of humor.
So yes, Insecure moves slowly. And it's built pretty much entirely around Issa's work life at a nonprofit for inner city kids, and a rough patch with her unmotivated boyfriend Lawrence (Jay Ellis); and Molly's travails around being the only black woman at her law firm (until another one joins, anyway) and trying to find a man. It's not much, but it's often hilarious.
Because the cast is comprised of relative newcomers, Insecure feels fresh and rooted in a believable reality. It's like you're not "watching a show," but rather eavesdropping on or listening to friends — assuming of course your friends are middle class black people in L.A. That's another thing: Los Angeles is a star here too, but in a novel way because Insecure highlights "unexplored" — i.e. working class and minority-majority — places. Where Insecure shines best, though, is in its dialogue.
You know from watching Friday and Barbershop and literally every rap album interlude ever that black banter can be hysterical. The cadence (Do. You. Know. Who. You. Are. Talking To?), the exaggeration, the creative swearing, the inflections, the "playing the dozens" and so on is what makes Insecure frequently laugh out loud funny.
As universal as its themes are, you can't escape that this is a show created by and about black women. You have to know, or suspend wondering, why black people call each other the N-word or black women call each other bitches casually; you have to know the language is contextual. Same for Issa and Molly's man problems. Dating is tricky for everybody, sure, but even more complicated for black women. Their pool is legitimately smaller: the 2009 Census, according to the Chicago Tribune, reported that African-American singles are least likely to marry and that there are 79 single black men for every 100 single black women - a number that takes into account high black male incarceration rates, but says nothing about level of education, family wealth, employment or whether he wears his cell phone on his hip.
That's why, when Issa, who is beyond annoyed with Lawrence's lack of motivation, whines to Molly, "It's hard to carry the emotional weight and the financial weight," she's echoing what a lot of black women experience. Can everybody relate to that? Maybe. Probably. Either way, it's another example of how Insecure is so thoroughly seeped in reality — which, as we all know from living in it every day, can trod along or whiz by.
Insecure has wrinkles. Issa's talking to herself in the mirror and fumbling freestyle rap lyrics can feel strained. And by the time her relationship is rocked due to an inevitable accident, you feel like you could've gotten there faster. By Episode 6 though, when Molly is turned off by a revelation from an otherwise great guy, which sets off a funny and fascinating conversation about black standards of masculinity and sexuality with her friends, Insecure feels very secure and like it's going somewhere great. It won't be for everybody, but in the age of Peak TV, viewers need a very specific point of view to care. This tale of an upper middle class awkward black girl and her hilarious friends in LA definitely works.
Insecure premieres on Sunday at 10:30/9:30c on HBO.