Why Insecure Is the Best Show on TV Right Now

Illustration for article titled Why iInsecure/i Is the Best Show on TV Right Now
Screenshot: HBO

I feel alien sometimes when considering the demand for representation that many of us make when assessing and critiquing television shows. Mainly because I just don’t give a damn if I’m reflected. I’m speaking strictly as a consumer, though. The value of us existing in every aspect of the production ecosystem is unquestionable. I just don’t require it on screen with what I choose to watch; all I ask is that shows do what they intend to do. If, for instance, it marinates itself in a veneer of performative realism—the sort of show that hemorrhages a self-conscious desire to be considered The Most Authentic Thing Ever—your shit better be tight.

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Since Insecure’s premiere four years ago, no other show has been as connected to and obsessed with these politics of representation. As entertaining as the characters and the pitch-perfect fusions of cinematography, set design, and landscaping soundtrack were, it felt, at times, stuck in a zeitgeist-chasing loop; which made some of the plot points simultaneously on the nose and anachronistic, like it was co-executive produced by black Twitter.

I realize this criticism is somewhat unfair. A show depicting the lives of millennial black people can’t help but mirror the conversations actual millennial blacks have and the situations they find themselves in, and Insecure was merely giving us what we claim to desire. You want representation? Well, here’s a representation turducken. Eat up, motherfuckers. But this is a fundamentally insecure way of creating...anything, really. Consumer taste is aggressively fickle, and even less reliable is our ability to articulate exactly what we really want. It’s the difference between crafting a thing around a nebulous need and just building the thing (and creating the need).

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Insecure is far from the only show that operated from this pellucid sense of self-consciousness. Most do. (The entire final season of Game of Thrones, for instance, was a ham-fisted cinematic distillation of Reddit fanfic.) The best shows either hide their tracks completely or create a meta examination of them, and Insecure didn’t really do either. But what enabled it to still be so compelling was the sheer talent of those involved in it. The line-writing and line-reading have always been among the best on TV, as are both the cast and the casting. And while Issa Rae’s robust comedic sensibilities had already been established, Insecure has proven her to be a deeply talented physical performer, too. She’s one of the few actors who’d be equally effective in a silent film.

But this season it seems to have put some noise-canceling earplugs in; allowing it to wrap itself around its best, truest, most interesting, and most devastating creative fulcrum—Issa and Molly’s love story instead of their respective love stories. The slow burn of the disintegration of a friendship is brutal to experience and this experience can only be accurately depicted if the audience has a tangible investment that relationship, which the previous seasons of Insecure established.

The men existing within this universe matter, of course; Lawrence, particularly. But while the previous seasons gave him his own episodes and easily trend-able character arcs, now he exists solely to contextualize and inject disruption into the main story. His relationship with Condola only matters because of the friction it provides Issa and Molly. Although Lawrence was important enough to have an (increasingly embarrassing) “hive,” he’s now a Jaq-pushing McGuffin.

(To his credit, Jay Ellis really sells that unfortunate space far too many of us find ourselves in, where the journey of self-discovery and self-actualization leaves casualties, as you become a “better” man at the expense of the women who loved you.)

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Other themes have emerged as the romantic trials and tribulations have been mostly tabled. How economic insecurity impacts, well, everything has been a continual subplot since season one. Both Lawrence’s and Issa’s decision-making then was largely a result of the metaphysical import we place on money; its connection to adulthood and masculinity, and how the lack of it is numbing and shackling. And now we’re able to see how Issa’s recent adulting glow up has changed the tenor of her friendship with Molly. All relationships have latent power dynamics infused in them, and navigating a shift requires a level of delicateness that’s only possible when communicating on the same page, which Issa and Molly are not. It’s here that Yvonne Orji has truly been able to shine. Molly is trying so very hard (so, so hard) to not be who she’s been—as a romantic partner, as a colleague and as a friend—and it’s painful for her (and us) to see that sincere evolution unacknowledged by her best friend.

Tripping down a coronatine-induced internet rabbithole last week led to me re-reading Roger Ebert’s four-star review of The American President. In his laud, he starts “It is hard to make a good love story, harder to make a good comedy and harder still to make an intelligent film about politics.” Insecure is (obviously) not about a widowed president with a new girlfriend, but the same sort of crafting—the building of a culturally relevant love story that is also funny—is present here. Effective, realistic and plot-driven funny is hard, and perhaps the best thing about Insecure is that it makes it seem easy.

Insecure isn’t a perfect show. But it doesn’t need to be to be great.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)

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DISCUSSION

sle1570
Gameface doesn`t play nice with others

My only critique: More Chad and more Kelli. And really, if I had to choose....more Kelli. She is usually poignant and hilarious. Her timing is extraordinary. I am interested to see how Chad's life is unraveling. He just admitted that business isn't poppin for him but he bought a new truck to keep up appearances. I don't even recall seeing his girlfriend although the way he talks, he is fortunate to have her at all. (I have a few friends very similar to Chad and his vibe. My interactions with them leave me with neck pains because I am constantly shaking my damn head.) I'm not the demo for the show as I am now happily 50 and way beyond that life but my wife and I enjoy the interplay and the memories about dumb stuff friends would do back in the day at that age. It's a very well written show but the actors are truly sublime in bringing these characters to life