Goodbye Insecure: how the hit HBO comedy changed the game

Issa Rae’s layered look at Black life in Los Angeles is entering its fifth, and final, season leaving behind a forceful legacy

No more Issa rapping encouraging quips to herself in a mirror. No more Molly espousing much-needed tough love while sidestepping around her own mess in the same breath. No more drug-fueled Coachella scenes that end in fighting and a tase. HBO’s mega-hit comedy Insecure is coming to a close after its fifth season, premiering this weekend, the end of an invitation for viewers everywhere, especially Black women like myself, to appreciate the hilarious and layered reality of getting one’s shit together.

Insecure has been a masterclass on embracing authenticity specifically the authentic lived experiences of Black women on television. Like the millennial protagonists of Insecure dealing with the throes of adulthood, unhappy relationships both romantic and platonic and trying to carve out a legacy while balancing everyday responsibilities, Insecure proves that Black life in its most everyday form is funny, dramatic, cringe-y, and relatable, OK?!

Created by and starring Issa Rae (Insecure is based on her award-winning webseries The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl), the show follows the friendship and chronically messy lives of Issa Dee and her romantically doomed best friend Molly Carter (Yvonne Orji) and the two’s varied romantic pursuits. Insecure, in its very first episode, embraced both characters with their flaws and mutual selfishness: Issa who is too scared to leave a writhing relationship with her boyfriend of five years, Lawrence (Jay Ellis), and Molly, whose overthinking about her own happiness and love life leave her feeling unhappy and unsatisfied. The show went on to include storylines on mental health, sex, unconventional romantic relationships, masculinity, gentrification, and other topics that can be features of Black life without forcing all-too-common meditations on Black trauma that don’t feel grounded in lived experience.

“It shows Black people just being Black without any extra sauce,” said Orji in a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly. “So many times when you have a show that centers around Black characters, it’s like, ‘Okay, well what is the plight that they have to overcome? Was it a deadbeat dad? Was it cocaine?’ No, [on Insecure], it was having a degree and still not finding the job you want. That’s also a real-life plight of Black people. It doesn’t have to be so salaciously traumatic.”

Over the past few decades, television has increasingly featured Black female protagonists, particularly spotlighting Black female friendships. Sitcoms like Girlfriends and Living Single chronicled the realities of how Black women socialize and the joy at the center of our friendships. Insecure is a nod to these shows, but trades a laugh track and the traditional sitcom set up at large for a more modern, and realistic portrayal of Black life. Issa driving a Lyft so she can afford an apartment. Molly and Issa navigating the woes of a majority white workplace. The two worrying about marriage and the ability to achieve healthy, long-term relationship goals.

Since then, Insecure and the changing landscape of television it inspired has ushered in a bevy of new shows about Black women and the way we live: Run the World on Starz, and Harlem, set to premiere on Amazon Prime, to name a few. “The goal was to elevate regular Black people and make us look as beautiful in our regularness as humanly possible,” said Rae in an interview with the New York Times. Insecure achieves that and more, tenfold.

Insecure protects its realistic portrayal of Black women and Black life in general by centering Black creatives behind the scenes: the writers’ room, costuming department, and other central creative arenas. While some of the most popular Black television shows of the past were written by majority-white writing rooms, Insecure hosts mainly Black writers (“When I got to Insecure, our diversity hires are white people,” said Insecure writer Ben Cory Jones).

Issa Rae and Natasha Rothwell in Insecure.
Issa Rae and Natasha Rothwell in Insecure. Photograph: Merie W. Wallace/HBO

But Insecure also uses its form, producing glossy, aesthetically pleasing shots of Los Angeles, to boost its core goal of depicting everyday Black people. Director and executive producer Melina Matsoukas, who directed Queen and Slim and Beyoncé’s Formation video, sets up visually stunning episodes that highlight South LA’s beautiful neighborhoods, which are often stereotyped in media, and makes the world of the show all the more attractive.

Beyond the show’s visual aesthetics, Insecure’s wardrobe stylings, from costume designers Ayanna James Kimani and Shiona Turini (since season three), keep the show feeling fresh and cool despite characters, at times, having the social graces of Family Matters’ Steve Urkel. The fashion of Insecure is enviable, stylish, and fluid, growing with the characters and their changing tastes and buying powers as they move into new life stages. The cast sport a mix of designer fits, trendy athleisure, and Issa’s graphic tees, with clothing and accessories for the show frequently from Black owned businesses, a tailored reflection of how Black young people dress with noted throwbacks to the defining fashion of Black cultural moments such as a Halloween costume worn by Kelli in season four inspired by the 1997 comedy Baps in film and television.

Insecure’s music, a collaboration of Rae, composer Raphael Saadiq and music supervisor Kier Lehman, also features a mix of young artists, including hits from SZA, Rico Nasty, BJ the Chicago Kid, and many others. Songs like Supermodel from SZA, used at the end of season two after Dee has accepted the end of her relationship with Lawrence, punctuate important moments for the show’s characters while not being overwhelming. “I think it’s awesome that Issa has been able to represent creatives who can do it all; write, produce, and act. There [are] so many elements that she was involved in that made it special. I feel like Insecure truly represents the creatives,” said singer, songwriter, and producer Leon Thomas III in an interview with Consequence.

Jay Ellis and Issa Rae.
Jay Ellis and Issa Rae. Photograph: Merie W. Wallace/HBO

Insecure has also helped introduce a wide range of Black talent to small screens across America, not only increasing needed representation of dark-skinned Black people on television (especially dark-skinned Black women in romantic roles), but also giving a range of actors and creatives deserved opportunities amid Hollywood’s gatekeeping. Since its premiere in 2016, in addition to Rae, who landed a $40m, five-year deal with HBO earlier this year, talent such Orji, Ellis, Natasha Rockwell (who plays Kelli in the show and recently starred in HBO’s The White Lotus), and others have been featured. Rae has used momentum from Insecure to tell more stories about young adults in South LA, including new shows like Sweet Life: Los Angeles. (“For me, my longevity will be opening the door for others,” said Rae in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter).

With Insecure’s fifth season premiering this weekend, the last season has some important questions to answer for long-time viewers. Will Issa and Lawrence get back together? Are Asian Bae and Molly officially over? Where do Issa and Molly stand after their almost friendship breakup of season four? Rae has already promised that she won’t “Game of Thrones” the ending and that an Insecure movie is more than unlikely unless she’s “down bad”. But, as always, Insecure will show Black people, particularly Black women, being our complete, complicated selves, embracing the fullness and messiness of real life against the sleek backdrop of South LA.

  • The final season of Insecure starts on HBO on 24 October and Sky Atlantic in the UK on 26 October


Gloria Oladipo

The GuardianTramp

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