Going into the third season of “Insecure” on HBO, showrunner Prentice Penny says he and Issa Rae, series co-creator, executive producer and star, wanted to make sure the show didn’t feel too much like the previous years.
“We never wanted people to get comfortable,” he tells Variety. “We always wanted each season to feel very different from the previous in different ways, so how do we grow and mature as writers but still keep the show feeling the way it feels?”
For the third season, specifically, Penny says the answer was to embrace the theme of “adulting.”
“You don’t want them to make the same mistakes they were continuing to make,” Penny says of his characters. “[Issa] can’t keep doing what she’s doing and be unaware of the consequences. That resonated and affected how we made decisions for all of the characters.”
Ahead of the third season premiere, Penny talks with Variety about what such growth looks like for Issa (Rae) and Molly (Yvonne Orji), why they chose not to include Lawrence (Jay Ellis), and what statement they are making with this year’s show-within-the-show.
How did you come to the decision to have a Lawrence-less season?
As we got into the writers’ room and started talking about, “Well, what is he doing?” It was hard to tether him because so much of his life is based on Issa. So we knew we wanted to see more of Daniel, because that’s who she’s living with, and we still wanted to see a lot of Issa and Molly, and we were like, “Well, we only have 28 minutes to tell the show” and we can’t really do a Lawrence work story because that doesn’t have anything to do with Issa or our world. So for us in the room, it was hard to force him into a story. Once we said, “Maybe he’s not in the season,” it kind of became, “Whoa, wow, what does that mean then?” Once that domino dropped, it just opened us up in so many other ways of how we tell stories.
Do you feel like you can take more risks in the third season because you’ve already earned the audience’s trust?
To be honest, to me, all the Lawrence stuff, when people are like, “Your show’s going to suck!” I’m like, “Man, I don’t know if we’ve gained people’s trust yet.” In the beginning, if you think about it — if you think about how much that character has grown, in the pilot you kind of don’t like that guy and by the end of the season you’re like, “Oh my god, I like this guy so much!” And that’s the whole point, you have to go on this journey and hope that people will continue to trust us. We’ve taken them on a journey for two years, and we care about these characters. We write the show — we love the show — so we’re not trying to destroy the fabric of “Insecure.” We have information about where it’s going that other people are not privy to. I love that people love the show, and I love the petitions, but I hope that people trust us when we say, “Hey, you guys are going to love the season.” I think we’ve done [well] so far, but if we could just get that loan on credit, I would really appreciate it.
But beyond Lawrence, what are the risks you feel like you can take?
For us, it was really like, “Let’s just get out of our comfort zone.” In episode 2 we don’t have Molly in the episode. … So once the Lawrence thing happened, every other domino that dropped, it was very easy to say, “Well, does it have to be?” And if it doesn’t have to be, it was very freeing. It really, I think, helped for the whole season.
Issa and Molly both made big changes in their personal and professional lives at the end of the second season. What do their journeys look like now?
They’re kind of going in different directions. Issa is going to start to make some interesting changes about her life in many ways, and, in some way, I feel like Issa is where Molly isn’t. And where Issa is, is after her closure with Lawrence, things are kind of freeing. She’s starting her life over — she moved out of the Dunes. She’s obviously at Daniel’s and she doesn’t have any money, but her life is purged of a lot of weight. Whereas, Molly’s life and her world is going to get more encumbered by weight and sort of needs to let go. They’re sort of going opposite. I think Issa’s letting the closure make her more open, and I think Molly’s situation has made her more pessimistic, more negative, and that’s her journey this season.
What is the biggest challenge for Issa when it comes to Daniel [Y’lan Noel]?
I think their main complication is just to see whether or not they can actually work. They never really had an opportunity…and when there’s nothing in the way, “Do I just like the high school version of you, or are we cool now?” … He kind of comes in to rescue a situation, but the show’s called “Insecure,” so we wanted to see, “Well, what is he insecure about? What are the things that he doesn’t want people to see?”
Where do Issa’s work woes come in?
That’s kind of a constant for her because that’s adulting, right? The season opens [with her driving] Lyft, and then she tells Molly she’s not doing it anymore, and by the end of the episode she has to get back out there. That’s real life, “I’ve got to go out there and make that money.” So that’s a constant runner throughout.
Is that also an opportunity to have her encounter different L.A. types?
Oh, 100%. Initially we were going to have her do a lot of odd jobs. She was going to be a Task Rabbit, she was going to do Postmates — because that’s a lot of people’s jobs now. We were going to have her do a bunch of stuff and at a certain point it became kind of too much. But we wanted to explore what that life was like for people who have jobs like that.
What did you want to do visually, in also directing the season premiere, to set up these challenges?
A lot of my stuff was about creating distance and separation between Issa and the rest of the world. Visually what I was trying to do was create a lot of distance between Issa and Daniel. I was trying to also make sure Issa felt isolated or Issa felt alone — because she is sort of out here alone for the first time. There’s a moment at the end of the episode where they’re kind of laughing in close-ups, and they’re close but they’re not in the same frame, just to sort of show, OK they’re starting to get to a place where they might be OK but they’re not there yet.
You also introduce a new show-within-the-show this season in the form of a sitcom. What was the genesis of this idea?
It really started from Issa and me talking, and she wanted to do an episode that was very ’90s. The start of the episode is a character in some horrible situation and you hear the voiceover, “I bet you’re wondering why I’m in jail with Mr. T” and then you backtrack through the episode. And we kind of couldn’t crack a story like that, but we were also talking about how in the wake of the “Roseanne” reboot, “Full House” reboot, “Will & Grace” reboot, all of the reboots that kept getting announced, why weren’t they rebooting shows of color? It kind of felt like our shows weren’t valued as much. And a lot of these networks were built on the backs of shows about people of color and once those networks got their numbers, our shows were cancelled, and it takes effort to get back. … We were like, “Why aren’t they rebooting shows of color? Why aren’t they rebooting ‘Living Single’? Why aren’t they rebooting ‘In Living Color’? Well, if they’re not going to reboot them, let’s reboot our own show!” And so we created a ’90s black sitcom and then said, “Let’s do the reboot.” And in that reboot we can have fun with some of the social, economical issues that people are dealing with now and pay homage to all of the shows that came before us and the reason we’re on the air. If we’re lucky, maybe someone will do a fake show about “Insecure” 20 years from now.
Is this show an opportunity to bring up topical issues like #MeToo and police brutality without forcing those stories more directly onto your characters’ lives?
I think so but more so I think it was about how reboots are trying to talk about these things. Like with the whole “Roseanne” thing where they thought their Middle Eastern neighbors were terrorists — that’s crazy! That’s a literal crazy thing for somebody to think in 2018. That’s a crazy way to deal with that social issue. It felt so antiquated. So we felt like, “Let’s lean in and have fun with that.” Because of course you would never deal with the issues this way in this day and age. It was our way to poke fun at the crazy ways they feel they need to deal with these issues, and point out how crazy it actually is.
“Insecure” season 3 premieres Aug. 12 on HBO.