It’s apparent by now that Issa Rae can do just about anything, except maybe win the World Series of Poker. Her face gives so much away, and that transparency would be a disadvantage in most card games. But it’s a situation that, in its confident second season, “Insecure” takes advantage of in witty and wonderful ways.
Of course, Rae’s character, Issa Dee, can keep it together when she has to — when a co-worker or a date is getting on her nerves, she is capable of putting on a stony game face and diverting her internal reaction (though in brief fantasy vignettes, we sometimes see how those fierce and frustrated responses would have played out).
But much of the time, Rae’s face is a wonder of subtle expressiveness and game adventurousness. She can take her character from embarrassment to anger to self-criticism to sarcasm in a matter of moments, and that malleability works perfectly for the show, which depicts an array of men and women in their late 20s, as their aspirations hit the hard, cold concrete of reality.
Nothing is set in stone yet; choices haven’t hardened into rigid boundaries, and Issa’s face reflects how scary it can be for her to stretch herself in new ways — but also how enlivening it can be to embrace both risk and responsibility.
Like a lot of the best comedies, nothing much happens in any particular episode of “Insecure”; it travels the well-trodden territory of dating, flirting, trying to succeed at work and working through rough patches in friendships and romances. But the experiences of Issa and her best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji) are given such specificity, depth and nuance that each episode of “Insecure” is like a well-made cocktail — sweet, powerful and gone too soon.
There is one cold splash of reality that must be acknowledged: HBO doles out episodes of this show on a week-to-week basis. But the lack of binging possibilities (unless one is willing to hoard episodes on a DVR or save up an HBO Go stash) shouldn’t prevent people from seeking out this deft and engaging comedy, which has grown more assured even as Issa’s life has become a bit more destabilized and unpredictable.
Despite its commonalities with shows like “Master of None,” “Girls” and “You’re the Worst,” “Insecure” may have the most in common with “Fleabag,” the subversive Amazon gem in which creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge often addressed the viewer. Her character did so to in order to revel in her transgressions — and to mislead the viewer a bit, too. When Issa looks at the camera, there’s a different dynamic: The character is often psyching herself up and trying out different identities before a big date or a party. What we see is Issa’s internal journey, as opposed to “Fleabag’s” calculated performance; from the latter character, we get a bravura show meant to attract and repel others.
But each show gets a similar charge of charismatic energy from the scenes in which its creator establishes a direct, unfiltered connection to the viewer. These women are willing to be their wildest, most elemental selves in those moments, and sharing those private, unfettered explorations is a remarkably generous act. These women may not always trust themselves, but they’re willing to put themselves out there — to us, anyway — even if they sometimes hide their true emotions or lose their nerve in the real world.
Speaking of bravery, Issa is actually bolder this season, or at least, she’s trying to be. She’s still dealing with the fallout of her breakup with Lawrence (Jay Ellis), which may not even be a breakup; things are ambiguous, and both characters’ confusion is both realistic and amusing. They begin dating other people without being able to fully let go of their shared past, and Issa’s reactions when other men touch her contain wonderful bits of physical comedy, and serve as a window on the character’s quicksilver emotional state as well. After five years with one man, other guys’ hands just feel different, which is a discomfort — except when she decides it’s a delight.
There’s an entire subset of half-hour comedies that want to convince America that dating in modern-day Los Angeles is nothing short of hell on Earth, and “Insecure” frequently goes to that well (one made more pleasurable by the lively work of guest stars like Sterling K. Brown). Before the theme gets wearing, however, the show gets quite a bit of comic mileage out of Issa and Molly’s indecision about whether they want adult partners who are willing to commit, or hot, callow guys they can sleep with and discard at will.
“Things should have fallen into place by now,” Molly tells her therapist, who gently tries to break her of her habit of fantasizing about the future instead of living in the imperfect but sometimes rewarding present. Orji does a wonderful job of depicting Molly’s halting attempts to come to terms with her constant self-sabotage — in her personal life, that is. At work, she’s a respected attorney who has hit a wall when it comes to promotions, but trying to break into the office’s boys club contains its own array of confusing and unfair obstacles, all of which are even more exhausting for an African-American woman to confront.
Despite the disappointments and disagreements that both women encounter, despite the issues of class, race and gender that they struggle with, there is a winning lack of cynicism at the core of “Insecure.” Issa works for a charity called “We Got Y’All,” and that spirit of geeky sincerity infuses every moment, even the ones that smartly dissect bias, snobbery and many varieties of selfishness.
Molly and Issa’s struggles are real, and the show never treats them as contrived or easily surmountable. But even if the world lets them down, they’ve got each other, and at certain moments, it’s very clear that’s more than enough.