As the third season of HBO’s Insecure begins, Issa — the L.A. nonprofit worker played by series creator Issa Rae — desperately needs a room of her own. That’s true in both a literal and metaphorical sense.
After splitting with Lawrence and finding herself in a financial hole, she’s crashing in the one-bedroom apartment that belongs to her ex, Daniel (Y’lan Noel). This is a bad idea, but also maybe a good idea, but also, probably, a bad idea. Her supervisor at the after-school outreach program We Got Y’all still has her on probation and isn’t letting her out in the field. At one point in the first episode, she looks for the mirror in Daniel’s bathroom and finds only a tiny one hanging on the wall that shines back just a fraction of her image. Before she can launch into one of her usual rap dialogues with her own reflection, in walks Daniel, completely interrupting her flow before it even starts.
This is what Insecure does so well: It takes the small moments of real life and magnifies them to get at the broader themes the show wants to address. One of the show’s most consistent themes — and one that’s emphasized heavily in the first half of this new season — is the struggle to find a place where one can feel comfortable and be her best self, something that’s particularly challenging when you’re an African-American woman like Issa or her best friend, the perpetually, gloriously overconfident Molly (Yvonne Orji). The show is called Insecure for a reason, and that comes across loud and clear in the first four episodes, the first of which airs Sunday night.
Conversations about Insecure tend to focus on the show’s sexual and romantic relationships, but it’s just as deft in capturing the discomfiting nuances of workplace politics. This season does that by placing Molly and Issa on diverging yet parallel tracks that illustrate how easy it is to feel marginalized in any professional space. When Molly joins a new black law firm, she expects any feelings of “otherness” she had in her previous, primarily white working environment to dissipate. It’s a shock to her system to discover that she’s just as likely to get left out and hazed in her new gig as she was in her old one. Meanwhile, Issa doesn’t change jobs, but as the only black staffer in an organization that mostly works with kids of color, she continues to feel singled out among her allegedly woke white colleagues.
During a staff meeting about whether the We Got Y’All logo — a white hand reaching out to support black students — is racist, several young, white staffers make the case that it is and desperately needs be updated. (“I hate to be that guy,” says a gay co-worker who clearly looooves to be that guy, “but in a post-Moonlight America, don’t you think we should incorporate a rainbow?”) Eventually, someone points out that the only staffer whose opinion is of real value is Issa’s, a rich irony considering that she had previously flagged this issue with Joanne (Catherine Curtin), the head of We Got Y’All, and was totally ignored.
“Oh, now you want to know what I think when I’ve been an alarm clock since day one?” Issa explodes. “Well, beep, beep, muthafuckas! Beep BEEP!”
Except Issa doesn’t explode. That hilarious alarm-sounding is just a fantasy. Instead, she low-key agrees with everyone, while silently resenting the fact that her opinion only becomes valuable on other people’s terms and timelines. This is Insecure not only finding the comedy in Issa’s situation, but illustrating the degree to which she has to assume a dual identity just to keep surviving in this world.
Survival is central to this season, too. Roseanne may have been praised by some critics, at least before the Valerie Jarrett debacle, for depicting characters struggling with economic issues. But beep, beep muthafuckas: Insecure has done the same thing since day one. In season three, it zeroes in on money even more, as Issa relies on side hustles to keep herself semi-afloat. Naturally, she turns to the classic modern-day part-time job — being a Lyft driver — to bring in some extra cash. Every time Daniel brings home another woman or Issa can’t focus, she hops in her car to start picking up passengers, an act that’s both super L.A. and a commentary on how unsettled Issa is. No detail in Insecure is haphazard or casual. Rae and her team of writers and directors make every choice with a sense of purpose.
Now, for those of you who watch Insecure for its more surface pleasures — that is, the fact that it’s filled with extremely attractive men and women going to cool parties and having sex — know that this season doesn’t skimp in that department either. It’s true that the very fine Lawrence (Jay Ellis) is absent this season, but, in addition to the drama involving Daniel, both Issa and Molly come in contact with enough other dudes to make Insecure still feel like it belongs in the rom-com category.
Insecure is also, in a way, a buddy comedy about Issa and Molly. The chemistry and verbal shorthand between Rae and Orji is as fresh and delightful as ever. When they’re together, you feel like you’re peeking in on two friends with deep history, as opposed to two characters going through the motions of a scene. And as the star of the series, Rae is grounded and believable, but also totally luminous as Issa tries her best to glow-up. If the addition of more audience-friendly Oscar categories ever inspires the Emmys to follow suit by awarding a trophy for Outstanding Smile in a Television Comedy, the nominees in that field should be: Issa Rae, Issa Rae, Issa Rae, Issa Rae, and Issa Rae. The Emmy will obviously go to Issa Rae in an rare five-way tie.
Insecure has always been a half-hour series that goes down smooth but doesn’t shy away from the real, and in the episodes I’ve seen, it hits those marks this season with even more assuredness. Issa, the character, may still be on the cusp of coming into her own. But Issa Rae and her HBO series are already there.