“Dick on E, bank account on E, life on E,” Issa Rae lamented to her fictional best friend, Molly (played by Yvonne Orji), during Sunday night’s excellent premiere of the second season of Insecure, the hit HBO comedy series Rae created and stars in. If you’re unfamiliar with it—and if you truly are, please email me for my HBO Go credentials so you can get on board ASAP—here’s the gist: Rae plays a woman (named Issa, after herself) in her late twenties who works for a non-profit in Los Angeles. She had a serious, live-in boyfriend, Lawrence, played by Jay Ellis, until she cheated on him with a former flame. (We ended the first season watching Issa's relationship with Lawrence deteriorate, and we've begun the second season with Issa pining for a freshly single Lawrence, who is now sleeping with a bank teller named Tasha.) As Issa navigates life in a big, West Coast city, we see her fuck up, pick herself back up again, rap in the bathroom mirror, earnestly attempt to resonate with detached middle-schoolers, and ultimately deliver the kind of poignant, refreshingly honest black female experience that Hollywood so often overlooks.
The story of Insecure is loosely based on Rae’s popular YouTube series, Awkward Black Girl, which she created in 2011 after becoming frustrated with the limits and constraints experienced by black women in entertainment. "We're just trying to convey that people of color are relatable," the 32-year-old Stanford graduate said of Insecure at HBO's Television Critics Association last year. "This is not a hood story. This is about regular people living life."
There's a reason Sunday night's episode, titled "Hella Great," drew 1.1 million viewers, per Nielsen. (To put that number into perspective, the premier of the first season, which aired last October, saw 365,000 people tune in.) And there's a reason people are talking about Insecure. It meets all the criteria Generation Y craves in a show: break-ups, sex, friendships, career conundrums, and a killer soundtrack. But don't lump it in the same category as Broad City or Girls. No, Insecure is in a category all its own.
After Wanda Sykes, Rae, whose father is a Senegalese pediatrician and mother is a teacher from Louisiana, is the second black American woman to write and star in a comedy on primetime television. She's got a solid group involved: co-creator Larry Wilmore (who served as The Daily Show's “Senior Black Correspondent" for eight years and now produces ABC's Black-ish); composer Raphael Saadiq (whose produced tracks for Whitney Houston, Solange, and John Legend, to name a few); showrunner Prentice Penny (known for his work on Scrubs, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Happy Endings); and executive producer Melina Matsoukas (who directed groundbreaking music videos like Rihanna's "We Found Love" and Beyoncé's "Formation"). Solange has been a consultant.
In the show, we watch Issa experiment with different identities in the mirror as she prepares for the inevitable run-in with her ex. We see her struggling to deal with stubborn students asking her why she's not married. ("My dad said ain't nobody checking for bitter ass black women anymore," a female student says, as the classroom explodes with laughter. "Black women aren't bitter," Rae responds. "We are just tired of settling for less.") We see her deal with out-of-touch white coworkers, who ask things like, "Issa, what does 'on-fleek' mean?" and suggest taking students to visit an African-American museum, "or, like, a Latina museum." (Issa takes them to the ocean.) We see her flaunting her rapping skills in order to impress a new guy, while subsequently pissing off her best friend. And speaking of her best friend, the show extends beyond Issa, as Molly—a lawyer—also grapples with the complexities of being a black woman in white corporate America. In one episode, for instance, she's asked by a white higher-up to tell an intern to act "less black" at the office.
There’s also a lot of sex. "For HBO, we have so much license to show black people loving and fucking," Rae recently told Cosmopolitan. "Why wouldn’t we take advantage of that? We don’t get to see black lust in a normalized and natural way that isn’t hypersexualized. Young black people have sex. Sometimes it’s good sex, sometimes it’s bad sex, sometimes it’s revenge sex. There’s so many different facets."
It's a shame that hype surrounding Insecure hasn't reached the status of, say, Lena Dunham's Girls—at least not yet. But Rae's presence in the entertainment world has been a longtime coming. Cheers to you, Issa, for being an awkward black girl—and a badass one at that.