Watching Insecure just makes it all feel better
Issa Rae offers us some much-needed escapism via the new series of the HBO hit comedy as each laugh pacifies an anxious generation
20 Apr 2020
Insecure has always managed to maintain an unmatched symbiosis with the lives of black almost-adults who are finding their feet. Even the season premiere includes a “patient zero” joke about an outbreak of jungle fever that is more on the nose than writers could ever have predicted. The LA-based characters are back riffing off each other’s ridiculousness to boost my serotonin despite the fact I’m actually hiding inside from a fever-inducing contagion myself.
Not to be dramatic but when Insecure is on top form it feels like moisturised skin, those rare days when your edges stay down like the girls on the ‘gram, like getting into bed when you’ve just washed your sheets, or taking your bra off and letting your boobs loose. It just makes you feel good. From the first scene, all the elements coalesce so satisfyingly. We hear ‘A boy is a gun’ by Tyler, the Creator (a certified banger) and the words “don’t shoot me down” which foreshadow the tumultuous nature of Molly and Issa’s relationship this season. A camera pans around a dimly lit apartment to Issa, her face framed by a headwrap keeping her natural coils contained. As she tells somebody over the phone that she no longer “fucks with” her best friend her dark skin glows with the light from her TV set. Immediately, the presenter of the show she’s watching in the background asks in a comically sombre fashion, “Who is responsible?” As much as this is in reference to the faux plot, it slots in perfectly with Issa’s phone conversation. Who will viewer’s side with during the demolition of this solid friendship we’ve learned to love, Issa or Molly?
The proof that the show resonates deeply with black millennials can be seen in the way I was alerted to the fact it had aired. Twitter was suddenly abuzz with criticisms of “Mollys”, and upon watching I realised this was in reference to friends who dish out hard truths that you might not always be in the mood to hear, especially when they could do with channelling that energy into fixing their own lives. As season four kicks off I’m reminded how gratifying it can be to see a hilarious young-ish black woman take the reins on a major TV show, and how much the audience relishes in discussing it at length.
Some warranted criticism of the last series was that Issa was getting too hung up on men. Whether that was her new beaux Nathan or her ex, it was all centred around her responses to their rejection. Reflecting on season three, Vulture wrote that by focussing heavily on the dynamic between her and her lovers “the show undercuts its own potential with an aversion to taking risks”. It continued: “What makes this season so frustrating is how close Insecure is to being a great series charting the internal lives of these black women with joy, a bit of pathos, and some much-needed emotional honesty.” The show is about growth and learning through your mistakes, so true to form it seems that with a long hiatus, the writers have reflected on the things that make the show a great step forward for black women and decided that there was more to explore. Now it’s our complex relationships with each other that is under the microscope.
Although the last season was not as layered as those that have preceded it – Nathan was a big waste of time and the other characters seemed to be floundering or stilted in their development – even that remains true to the ebb and flow of your “growing up” phase. Sometimes it is woeful and deliriously dramatic, sprinkle in time to turn up akin to the Coachella episode and then slump into large periods of “meh” that keep you grounded. Such is life. So why put so much pressure on Issa Rae as a fledging creative to be perfect all the time? Let’s be honest, our good sis has been busy with Little, Black Lady Sketch Show, her own production company and more. I’m just glad we have yet more of her brilliant work to serve as sun-soaked escapism when we’re trapped indoors.
The amount of ownership we feel over the show, one shaky season won’t rock the fanbase. Especially as there are so many other things that make me giddy and almost evangelical about the show as a project. Insecure is committed to producing those “I feel seen” moments, doing work to make sure we’re reflected in all the ways we deserve without being trite. It’s a celebration of body types through Kelly and Issa’s new rotund bae (although both appear to fall into tropes of being bubbly comic relief), an exploration of black sexuality with just enough shots of great bums to keep you hooked.
Adding to Insecure’s rich texture is its use of the show-within-a-show format. Like a Russian doll, every season the characters are hooked on a series that we the viewers also can’t wait to see. This one, Looking for LaToya, speaks to our current obsession with true crime following the disappearance of a 26-year-old woman in Crenshaw. My jaw dropped when I saw none other than Real Housewives of Atlanta star Porsha Williams and Ray J (Love & Hip Hop, and that tape) featuring. Even the trash shows within the show speak to my own trash show habits. This feels similar to season two which would sneakily embed Frank Ocean references throughout because that’s the shit we love.
Issa calls on the help of a number of geniuses whose work has become the bedrock of the show. Many articles have been written about how the show makes dark skin pop. While other shows fail to capture our radiance, Insecure cinematographer Ava Berkofsky told Mic that she would avoid how sitcoms usually lit the walls of the set and instead “have the light reflect off them” using moisturiser, whiteboards and more. Natural hairstyles are commonplace and remind us that our hair is versatile. You’ll take notes after each episode on what to do with your budding fro.
“When Insecure is on top form it feels like moisturised skin, those rare days when your edges stay down like the girls on the ‘gram. It just makes you feel good”
Of course, there is then the excellent soundscape built alongside music supervisor Kier Lehman. As much as we watch Insecure for the comedy, the show has become a platform to hear new music, with the last episode introducing a worldwide audience to the likes of Cautious Clay, St. Panther and Yung Baby Tate. Raphael Saadiq created original music for the first season, while Solange previously served as a music consultant. Over the past couple of years, Issa has really leaned into music as a key component of her projects, releasing Insecure soundtracks that can be played over and over again, weaving together on-the-rise artists and her own in-show raps that act as her internal monologue when she’s trying to process her feelings. This year she also launched her own label Raedio, in partnership with Atlantic Records, which gives new artists a leg up and has placed their music in TV shows.
There’s an overlap between Issa on and off-screen. On-screen this season Issa is putting together a festival. As she tries to explain her idea she grapples with all the different pressures that mount on black creatives to make their work accessible, useful for the community and also financially viable. “It’s fun with brand elevation and social justice undertones,” she says. “It’s political,” but its also “escapism really you just forget about it all”. This tricky tightrope is one I wrestle with daily as a writer, of what is the right narrative, the most attractive narrative around the work that you do for it to thrive. At the heart of her event is her desire to showcase black talent and give black people a space to enjoy themselves on their own terms.
That’s what real-life Issa has become known for: putting people on. Recently Melina Matsoukas told gal-dem that she owes her career to black women and listed Issa as one of the people who gave her a chance in directing television. The comedian has a clear intention to support black creativity, in turn, us as fans help her pave the way. All of this adds to the community feel of the show.
It cradles us in our dysfunction as we too stumble through job dissatisfaction, soured relationships, and a myriad of microaggressions. It uplifts us as we see a true and beautiful representation of ourselves like it was tailor-made for our enjoyment. Now I have a sense of purpose again as I wait for the next instalment so I can belly laugh once more.
Watch the season preview below