HBO's 'Insecure' Is Unlike Almost Anything Else You'll See on TV in 2017
As Issa Rae becomes more secure in her storytelling abilities, Insecure becomes a better television show.
Already great in its inaugural eight-episode season, Rae and company take everything that already worked and find deeper, funnier, and more meaningful ways to explore its central themes in season two. It’s not fair to say the show has taken The Leap, mostly because the difference in quality isn’t so extreme as to be striking. (This isn’t Season One Parks And Recreation over Season Two Parks And Recreation by any stretch.) But there’s a confidence on display that’s palpable even while the show refuses to simply restage what already worked the first time around.
If there’s a quality that runs through most programming I enjoy these days, it’s “curiosity.” That’s a somewhat hard thing to dramatize, but essentially boils down to a show asking, “What don’t I know about? What interests me beyond my own experience? What makes that person across the room tick?” It would have been very easy for Insecure to make its second season about repairing the damage inflicted at the end of season one and return to the norm. Instead, Insecure spends the four episodes provided for reviewing asking what more there could be that returning to what is known, and quite frankly, to what wasn’t exactly working in the first place.
Taking that approach allows Rae to take a three-pronged approach to what it means to find self-fulfillment for these characters now that most preconceived notions of normality have flown out the window. Rather than just making her own character the focal point, Rae is extremely generous in giving ample time to both Issa, Molly, and Lawrence as they navigate their respective ways through romantic encounters that can be silly, sensual, boundary-breaking, or just plain awkward. In fact, those encounters are usually mixes of at least two of those options, as “reality” keeps flying in the face of what these people have been trained to expect.
I put reality in quotes above because obviously this is a scripted show, but the veracity and often mendacity of what’s presented feels real in ways that are extremely gratifying when they aren’t extremely mortifying. Indeed, if you’re like me and get physically sweaty watching characters do or say the wrong thing with almost laser-like precision, then parts of Insecure will send you fleeing behind the couch. But it’s a testament to Insecure that it’s developed three-dimensional characters that inspire such a visceral reaction. You don’t wince because of clever scene construction; you wince because someone you want to succeed sabotages herself at every turn.
“Mendacity” might seem like a backhanded compliment, but I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument about how supposedly “small” conflicts aren’t the hallmark of solid drama. Yes, this is a comedy, but the stakes are real, even if they don’t involve a world-ending plague or an alien invasion. The primary players in Insecure all want happiness, but aren’t entirely sure they deserve it. That fear drives a lot of unfortunate but understandable choices that they make throughout the first half of the second season, and while the show doesn’t necessarily have a clear, overarching “plot” in the traditional sense, it’s extremely curious about how the ripple effects of one decision affect the overlapping spheres that it depicts. Rather than inevitably arcing towards a pre-determined endpoint, Insecure simply follows these people and observes how their accumulated choices define their present status.
Those choices often force characters to analyze who they think they are versus who they might become. In particular, Molly and Lawrence get a lot of opportunities to confront their own preconceived notions about what they deserve, and in turn get eye-opening realizations of how other people perceive their place in the universe. It would have been EXTREMELY easy for Rae to make Lawrence’s new semi-girlfriend Tasha into a one-dimensional character barely worthy of consideration. Instead, Tasha gets as much sympathy as anyone else on this show, which speaks again to the curiosity on display in Insecure. Tasha doesn’t know that she’s the “other woman” in this scenario, since from her perspective she’s at the center of her respective universe.
At the heart of everything is Rae’s ear for dialogue, which conveys a keen sense for how different people talk in different scenarios. In particular, the short-hand repartee in play when Issa/Molly play off one another is astounding, full of code words (like “Malibu,” whose meaning will be evident when you watch) and short-hand that long-time friends like this would employ. These two don’t need to explain the freakin’ plot to one other, and as such use as few words as possible to convey the meaning both easily intuit. It’s something that’s easy to identify but incredibly difficult to execute. In large party situations, the dialogue between larger groups amplifies into a multi-layered orchestration of overt jokes, character-based quips, callbacks, inside jokes, and verbal smackdowns that leave the audience breathless. The words keep flowing and flowing until the audience surrenders to the flow washing over them.
It’s understandable if you want to spend the summer catching up with the Peak TV you missed since last September. But it’s worth your time to carve out an extra half-hour to watch this gem. Rae is a special talent, and what’s unfolding here is unlike almost anything else you’ll see this year.
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