Insecure gets by on fewer shenanigans than any half-hour show on TV. It’s not as if creator-star Issa Rae and her collaborators signed any kind of pledge saying that nothing would happen to the characters that couldn’t happen in life. But somehow, that’s what the show turned into, and it’s more special for its decision to live in something like reality. Developed from Rae’s web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, it’s part of a wave of auteur-driven, highly personal comedies in the vein of the genre’s modern forefather, Louie; but unlike other notable work in that vein, including Atlanta, it avoids surrealism and slapstick (except of a subtle, believable sort, as when the show’s heroine can’t stop laughing at the shape of her date’s hands). The risk in this kind of show is that viewers will complain that “nothing happens,” but that never feels like the case here because Rae and her co-stars shape every scene into a perfectly formed bit of social interaction, built around a core of conflict, but with fascinating bits of business happening in the margins. Some of the latter are funny in ways you can’t quite put your finger on; there’s just something about an actor’s expression or body language, or the timing of a cut. One of the biggest laughs in an early episode is a brief cutaway to a woman sitting down in a chair in a strangely particular way, and later on there’s a picnic in a park that includes a woman who twerks while playing the flute.
In its second season, premiering Sunday night on HBO, Rae’s character, Issa Dee, is trying to get over her breakup with her ex-boyfriend, Lawrence (Jay Ellis). It’s a classic case of getting fired before you can quit: She was unhappy in the relationship and stepped out on Lawrence, coincidentally at the very moment when he was starting to make things happen for himself. One of the more intriguing choices here is to give Lawrence his own thoughtfully developed subplot in which he adjusts to his new job, where he’s a tech hotshot and also a crush object, while hooking up with a new woman who at first seems like a casual, sex-only affair but gradually, almost imperceptibly starts drawing him into boyfriendlike rituals. Issa’s work at her educational nonprofit becomes more tense when it becomes clear that her attempts to save a failing school are likely doomed. Issa’s best friend, Molly (Yvonne Orji), heeds Issa’s advice and goes into therapy; amusingly, she keeps firing therapists the way she used to chew through men. There’s a superb subplot where Molly discovers by accident that a white male co-worker has a bigger paycheck than her; the next question, then, is what to do about it, and the show’s parsing of the sociopolitical minefield of asking for raises results in one of its most distinctive stories to date.
Dating is a major bonding point between the two women, and it gives season two of Insecure much of its comic fuel. It sucks being single when you’re over 30, anyway; the reduction of mating rituals to swipe-left or swipe-right makes the whole thing feel even more coldly transactional, or else more like a job interview. “I gotta be cute and careful and witty and charming a lot,” Issa gripes. Both women are pulled between one-night stands (or nooners) and the anxious pursuit of relationships. There isn’t a bad performance anywhere on the show; even actors with one or two scenes manage to stand out and make you think of them as individuals who continue to exist even when the show’s cameras aren’t on them. (The incomparable Sterling K. Brown shows up, and I’d rather not say what he’s doing here.)
The series has an even sharper eye for the momentum of ordinary exchanges; sometimes, you know a conversation is starting to go south just by the look in Lawrence’s eye (Ellis has a marvelous deadpan) or the way Issa’s voice starts to go scratchy or reedy. As in an early Albert Brooks movie, weirdness seeps into ordinary, everyday moments, as when an unseen neighbor calls out from behind a closed metal screen door to warn Issa to “put some lotion on those ankles!” or when a party at Issa’s place goes from a sedate hangout to borderline chaos in the space of a few minutes. We also get brief glimpses of a show-within-a-show that feels like a rebuke to the sorts of roles that some white viewers would rather see black actors get stuck with: an antebellum melodrama about the adventures of a slave named Ninny. For all its dry observational smarts, this is ultimately an aspirational show about characters, women in particular, trying to shape and direct their own lives. Staring up at a burn mark on her ceiling, Issa addresses it as if it were a dark spirit. “You can’t have my joy,” she says.