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TV Review: HBO’s ‘Insecure’

HBO's new half-hour from Issa Rae engages with language, love, and streams of colorful profanity

With:
Issa Rae, Yvonne Orji, Jay Ellis, Lisa Joyce

One of the chief joys of “Insecure” — HBO’s new half-hour comedy from the mind of co-creator, executive producer, and star Issa Raeis listening to its characters talk. The dialogue of the show is a combination of cadence, vocabulary, and implication that is both brilliant and not-safe-for-work. In one scene, when Issa (Rae, playing a version of herself) insists that she didn’t sleep with an old flame, her best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji) shoots back: “All that drama for zero dick? Bitch, you buggin’.” Upon discovering that an acquaintance is engaged to an Asian-American woman, Issa observes of black men: “They wife others up with a quickness.” Molly explains, cryptically and hilariously, that the main drawback of a dating app is “hotep n-ggas,” while Issa reminisces that her attitude from the night before was confident and bold: “no-fucksy.”

As “Insecure” unfolds, the striking quality of the language serves to punctuate not just conversation but context: Issa and Molly slide through verbal costume changes with hard-earned fluidity, learning to put on and discard identity cloaks for different situations. At work, Issa’s colleagues ask her to explain the meaning of “on fleek.” She demurs. A middle-schooler demands of her, “Why you talk like a white girl?” And Molly’s white supervisor shows up in her office to ask her, euphemistically, to tone down the expressiveness of a new black employee. She doesn’t say “because you’re the other one,” but the sentiment hangs in the scene.

Rae, who created and starred in the web series “Awkward Black Girl” in 2011, came to HBO after Lena Dunham’s “Girls” sparked a series of at times heated conversations about minority representation on premium television. “Insecure,” co-created with veteran comedian Larry Wilmore, is the result — a show that cannot help but carry with it the burden of being a standard-bearer for diverse voices on television, even as it attempts to be, you know, funny.

“Insecure” proves to be ably up to the challenge. The show marries specific issues with universal questions to create situations that are both precise and affecting. For example, in a moment of panic about her love life during a totally unrelated work presentation, Issa imagines that a co-worker reciting statistics about disadvantaged middle-schoolers is turning to her and saying, with all the compassion of a product recall: “Educated black women are highly unlikely to get married, the more education they have.” It’s a funny and tragic fever-dream, an embodiment of the self-doubt in Issa’s head. It’s also a smart, universalizing moment, recalling every moment where any of us has felt judged by their coworkers.

Issa herself is a profane, brilliant lead character — a bathroom rapper who punctuates everything, including the show’s episode titles, with “f-ck.” In the first few lines of the pilot, which takes place on her 29th birthday, she describes herself as “aggressively passive,” asking: “How different would my life be if I actually went after what I wanted?” Her nonprofit job is enervating; her boyfriend of four years boring. It’s time for Issa to make a change, but as she quickly discovers in the excellent pilot, elegant transformation-montages don’t happen in real life.

With “Insecure,” Rae joins a cadre of performers who have created prestige comedies from the vicissitudes of their own lives, starring themselves in the lead roles. Donald Glover, Pamela Adlon, Tig Notaro, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge have all debuted half hours in the past few weeks. But more than any of its contemporaries, or even “Girls,” “Insecure” feels like 2001’s “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” which brought viewers into the messy world of its lead character’s unacknowledged dysfunction and colorful vernacular, punctuated by her own nervous tics and the foibles of her friends.

Like Bridget, Issa has decided to make some life changes. Like Bridget, she is torn between two men who represent two very different things. (Like Issa, Bridget’s BFF Shazzer “likes to say f-ck. A lot.”) And as in “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” the relationship comedy in “Insecure” belies the profound social commentary lurking just beneath the surface. The indelible trace of disenfranchised identity is omnipresent, without needing to be discussed; it’s palpable in Issa’s inability to take decisive action, and in her self-conscious confusion. As in Glover’s “Atlanta,” a sensibility of loss and disorientation pervades “Insecure” without being picked over. Instead, the silence is filled with hip-hop: Junglepussy’s “Bling Bling” closes out the first episode, with fierce, aggressive, no-f-cksy rhymes. (Beyoncé’s younger sister, Solange Knowles, is the show’s music consultant.)

With rap music, self-deprecation, and a hundred different ways to inflect “boy, bye,” “Insecure” and Issa Rae have worked to create a symphony of one character’s attempt to avoid her own problems for as long as possible. Despite all the conversation, the audience’s focus snaps to what’s left unsaid.

Popular on Variety

TV Review: HBO's 'Insecure'

Comedy, 10 episodes (6 reviewed): HBO, Sun. Oct. 9, 10:30 p.m. 30 min.

Crew: Executive producers, Issa Rae, Prentice Penny, Melina Matsoukas, Michael Rotenberg, Dave Becky, Jonathan Berry

Cast: Issa Rae, Yvonne Orji, Jay Ellis, Lisa Joyce

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