The fourth season of “Insecure” is its most confident yet, using the show’s careful eye for detail to tell a single well-crafted story that ended up affecting every aspect of its two leads’ lives. And it was a season that was perhaps too easy to see ending up ignored by the Emmys. In its first few seasons, “Insecure” thrummed in the backbeat of awards season, having picked up two Golden Globe nominations and one Emmy nomination for lead actress Issa Rae, as well as two cinematography Emmy nominations. With its most accomplished installment yet, though, “Insecure” finally broke through with a Best Comedy Series nomination as well as recognition for both Rae and supporting actress Yvonne Orji, overdue recognition that doubles as an establishment seal of approval on a show that reached a new level in 2020. Given how long this sort of recognition for “Insecure” has been possible, this was perhaps the most exciting surprise of Emmy morning.

“Insecure’s” fourth season was a double act, establishing in its opening that the well-meaning but somewhat adrift Issa (Rae) had lost more than her moorings: Her friendship with Molly (Orji) had ended. We then go back in time to track, through parallel Thanksgiving celebrations, ill-starred vacations and somehow unluckier block parties, and various corners of a gorgeously lonely Los Angeles, their path away from one another, and, eventually, their first steps back. 

This is a fairly high level of ambition for the comedy field: Plugging a seasonlong mega-arc about disaffection into a show that was built as a hang between two friends was hardly the easy choice. And yet Rae and especially Orji sold the falling-out, with Issa’s increasingly desperate grasps towards her friend met with increasing chilliness. Rae has, over the past three seasons, shown you how Issa’s need and anxiety are both integral to who she is and, at times, exhausting even for herself; Orji has demonstrated the frayed reasoning behind Molly’s impulse towards shutting down emotionally when her needs are not met. Both characters exist in a world that wasn’t built for them as Black women, but that’s not the show’s subject, just a fact of life they’ve learned to process around, first together and then apart. Their disentanglement was what the show had been building towards in its story of unlikely friendship — it only made them more themselves, more Issa-ishly confused and Molly-ishly certain. This was TV that derived in power because of how precisely it built on what had come before.

Which makes its nominations at this year’s Emmys surprising, as “what had come before” was not an awards magnet. “Insecure’s” nominations this year both coincide with a leap forward in quality and seem to serve as an acknowledgement of the preceding three seasons’ of underheralded work it took to get there. They represent a rising tide of representation among the Emmy nominees (with others of this year’s nominees including Zendaya of “Euphoria” and Regina King of “Watchmen,” to name just two), and raise the question of what “Insecure,” in putting together a show this ambitious over the first three years, needed to do to get in. Perhaps the next show led by Black talent as promising and finely-wrought as “Insecure” will be met with major-scale Emmys success from its inception. What’s most worth celebrating on an exciting day for one of the year’s great shows may be a shift in power between a historically-white show and a show made by Black talent: The Emmys need shows like “Insecure” on the ballot in order to recognize what’s best on television, but “Insecure” didn’t need the Emmys to be great.