Issa Rae, the creator and star of the well-loved, much-praised YouTube series “The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl,” makes her premium cable debut Sunday with the more succinctly titled “Insecure.”
Co-created with Larry Wilmore — late of “The Nightly Show” but also the creator of “The Bernie Mac Show” and an executive producer of “black-ish” — with a pilot and subsequent episodes directed by Melina Matsoukas (Beyoncé's “Formation”), it’s a professionalized version of Rae’s homely original that maintains her voice while sharpening everything that surrounds and supports it.
Rae plays Issa Dee, whom we meet on her 29th birthday. After five years with the same boyfriend and in the same job, she is feeling stuck and wondering “how different would my life be if I actually went after what I wanted.” Her boyfriend, Lawrence (Jay Ellis), at first seems the familiar figure of the hopeless slacker, glued to the couch and forever “working on my business plan” — we don’t see him on his feet, with shoes on and out of the house until halfway through the second episode.
Eventually, he’ll emerge as an equal, equally developed partner in the story, alongside Issa and her best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji), a corporate lawyer Issa calls “"the Will Smith of corporate. White people love Molly; black people also love Molly.”
Work-wise, Issa is the only black person at a nonprofit, We Got Y’all, engaged in outreach to at-risk kids. The outreach is less important here than the office dynamics, which leaves Issa feeling like the odd person out even in a situation where, in one respect, she is the only person in. (An early working title of the show was “Non-Prophet.”) Though she’s regarded as “the token with all the answers,” they are disinclined to pay attention to what she says, with the exception of her work partner, Frieda (Lisa Joyce), who is eager to bond.
“I’m torn between the Booker T. method and the Du Bois method,” says Issa’s white boss. “What would James Baldwin say is most beneficial for people of color?” (“In 2016?” we hear Issa think in a voice-over.)
She is also berated by the kids to whom their outreach is addressed, for her speech, her hair, her dress.
As in “Awkward,” Rae’s character writes raps and performs them privately as a way of keeping a journal, working through things, calming herself down; she’s both the lead and the chorus. At other times, she will play an imagined conversation into a mirror, like Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver,” if Travis Bickle had ever uttered the phrase “Steve Harvey box set.”
Like Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” on FX, “Insecure” is a site-specific, African American sitcom that makes no particular concessions in speech or subject to the range of demographics a high-visibility network can attract. Much of it takes place in neighborhoods television typically visits only in crime stories, with the difference that there are no crime stories here, just the getting on with life, love, work, acceptance and self-acceptance. While the specificity of place is important, to the characters’ lives and our understanding of them, it is also something short of essential. When Molly says to Issa, about her not having visited the ocean until college, “OK, Windsor Hills — I was a hood rat, all I knew was Florence and Crenshaw,” the meaning is clear from context even to those unfamiliar with those place names, though some Angelenos will be gratified to hear them.
But finding the universal in the specific is just what art does. As a white Jewish male who grew up in the San Fernando Valley, I am not of the demographics to whom this show would superficially seem addressed. But you don’t have to be an ancient Greek to get something out of “The Odyssey,” or a turn-of-the-20th-century Irishman to understand “Ulysses,” if you can understand “Ulysses.”
Whenever the series seems to want to put idea before character, the characters — which is also to say, the actors, who inhabit their parts to the brim — reassert their primacy. It is easy to care about them; “Insecure” is at its grandest when it’s most intimate: Small gestures read large, domestic negotiations feel as heart-stopping and suspenseful as any encounter out of Hitchcock. There were times I had to stop the show for a minute in order to collect myself. But I always came back.
When: 10:30 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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