Insecure – S01E01 Review – 'Insecure as F**k'

Issa Rae, an up-and coming multi-media darling whose emphasis on the Black Woman’s Experience has garnered her critical acclaim, has finally arrived on HBO with her television debut, Insecure, an eight episode HBO series. Insecure looks at the friendship, dating experiences , and general life tribulations of two black women–best friends Issa Dee (Issa Rae) and Molly (Yvonne Orji). The series is produced by Issa Rae and Larry Wilmore–a champion for Issa since her popular, self-made web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl captured a strong following of loyal fans.

HBO's programming lineup is growing increasingly complex and inclusive, with many #OwnVoices creators and POCstars. While Game of Thrones has faced criticism regarding its lack of diversity, this year saw the premiere of The Night Of, a limited series starring Riz Ahmed, and the second season of the popular 30-minute series Ballers, which stars Dwayne Johnson and showcases a variety of black and brown actors, including John David Washington.

As someone who values diversity and inclusion in media, I was interested in reviewing Insecure since it was first announced. HBO subscribers can watch the pilot episode of Insecure early, ahead of its official premiere on October 9.

The tricky part in reviewing this is that I'm neither a woman or black. While Insecure is a show most people can engage with, there are clearly going to be struggles that, as a non-Black Latinx man, will go over my head, that I can never speak to as well as a black woman could. Fortunately, my lovely wife "Q" is qualified for this analysis, so I convinced her to give me feedback for what will be regular reviews for the first 8-episode season of Insecure.

Adrian: Having watched the web series and being a long-time fan of Issa Rae, what were your expectations going into the pilot?

Q: I knew it would be similar to the web series in terms of tone and her use of parodic characters and archetypes. Issa's writing tends to be somewhat autobiographical, and she is again here in Insecure, but this has a different feel than the web series; more of a late night tone, where Awkward Black Girl was like a sitcom.

Adrian: Did you like the pilot episode of Insecure?

Q: I did like it! 30 minute episodes are short, but the web series was half that. I was excited to see her re-use actors from her web series; it was just nice to see their faces again. I like that this new version of Issa has a different set of issues to contend with. She isn't as put-together as her character on Awkward Black Girl, she has more glaring flaws that are particular to women her age.

Adrian: The opening scene had Issa on a work assignment, being analyzed and bombarded with questions by judgmental tweens. It went from awkwardly funny to plain brutal, and I can easily imagine kids doing this in real life. What did you think of this scene?

Q: Yeah. I have worked with kids and this felt very familiar. Kids are assholes! They are totally, all up in your business. With "inner city kids," they have these programs all the time, and the people they interact with (Issa, in this case) will cycle in and out of the program, so the kids are not going to latch onto you, much less trust you. When I worked in a similar program, it took four to five months before the kids stopped giving me a hard time and started asking me for help.

Adrian: Back in a team meeting, Issa presented a new approach for the kids, to get the kids out of their normal surroundings. Did her philosophy resonate with you?

Q: Yeah, that's how I got where I am, I didn't stay in my neighborhood or my school either, because my mom or our teachers took the initiative to get us out to see something new. We left the city, we saw other things, like the Redwood National Park or even just other neighborhoods. We saw plays, went to the ballet, the symphony. We were exposed to some good stuff and got to see there were other opportunities and options. This happened from elementary school through high school. Actually, my high school employed a full-time college and career counselor, which is very rare.

Adrian: What did you think of Issa's love interests? Is her boyfriend busted (Lawrence, played by Jay Ellis)? Is the new guy worthwhile (Daniel, played by Y'lan Noel)?

Q: Her boyfriend is definitely busted. I mean, we don't even know what he does for work do we?

Adrian: Well, he doesn't work. He's been working on a business plan (for four years now).

Q: Oh yeah, well he's definitely busted. He doesn't seem like he's trying to supplement their income in the meantime. He doesn't seem to know what's going on with Issa. He didn't even plan for her birthday! The new guy, I'm not sure if it was clear, had she dated him previously?

Adrian: No, she knew him before, but hadn't dated him. In fact, she had regarded him aloud as her "what if" guy.

Q: It seems like he's an ideal, a fantasy. He could be better than her boyfriend, but maybe worse. He's still TBD. I didn't find either of them to be my type; I was more interested in Justin (played by Ivan Shaw), the Asian teacher in the first scene, actually...

Adrian: What did you think of Issa's experiences in the workplace? Working with non-black co-workers and navigating that experience.

Q: Everything was a bit exaggerated, it's a comedy, but yes, it was otherwise very familiar and relatable. The program to help inner city kids is being run by a white woman wearing a dashiki or something (Joanne, played by Catherine Curtin from Orange is the New Black). Sometimes the people who earnestly want to help are also the biggest non-woke, culturally-appropriative people around. Also, when Issa originated a smart new idea for the kids: why couldn't Issa pick her own team? Why did Joanne have to pair Issa with a white co-worker, rather than give her the lead? It was Issa's idea, so it was like ownership of the initiative was taken away from her, and now she would only earn half the credit for the success of the program.

Adrian: When we are introduced to Issa's best friend, Molly, Issa makes a point about how Molly is liked by everyone. This is further emphasized when we see code-switching in action, where Molly is able to charm white folk with political humor and endear herself to black folk with authenticity. How did you think this was handled?

Q: It worked in two ways, for both black and non-black audiences. I knew subconsciously that I was seeing code-switching, but I didn't think about that until you said it. It was an effective example of how Molly is able to work successfully in both environments. People of color will recognize this, but non-PoC will see it and perhaps start to grasp what it's like to be a person of color in these environments—how you have to straddle lines to be successful. I think Issa set up this scene to present another nuanced take on a black woman professional; popular and successful, but can't seem to get her love life together.

Adrian: Right, speaking of her love life, we see Molly get dumped over text. Just before the dumping, her co-worker (Diane, played by Maya Erskine) gushes how her boyfriend Jamal says that Asian girls aren't his type, and black men aren't her type, but somehow their relationship works. This statement alone could be unpacked for days, but Molly moves quickly on, "he's frontin'" and says black men love Asian women, and all kinds of women, in fact, except black women. Diane seems hurt, then seems to have a revelation about it all, "Jamal said I was his first..." she pouts.

Q: I don't quite know what Diane meant by that, so I'm not sure what to make of it yet. Obviously, Molly is bitter. She represents that supposed demographic of black women that want to be married but aren't: they're trying to find the perfect black man, rather than dating outside of their race. To have Molly dumped by a non-black man, right as she was conversing with Diane, just compounded that insecurity. Asian women are fetishized, and to Molly, they're the demographic that all men want, black men included. The punch to the gut is the next day when Diane and Jamal get engaged.

Adrian: Lastly, what did you think of Issa and Molly's girlfriend relationship? It seemed like there was a lot of give and take, with Molly complaining during Issa's birthday and Issa using Molly's night as a chance to connect with Daniel.

I liked it. Issa blew it, but in the end, she makes the right choice and values her friendship with Molly over the new guy, Daniel. It seemed pretty healthy in the end. Chicks before dicks and all that. It's also that kind of friendship that is so extensive that they bicker and hurt each other's feelings from time to time. There are layers here. Maybe Molly's too needy, always calling to complain. Maybe Issa is a user, maybe she's more sneaky than she lets on.

Random thoughts and observations:

A: At her live show, Issa describes "Racheté," a feminist POV on ratchet culture. Analyzed and appreciated, judgement-free. She went on to discuss how artists like Lil' Kim and Missy Elliott covered sex and sexuality in a very raw and unapologetic way that is often misunderstood. We saw inklings of those ideas in the episode's music, Issa's dialog, even as she plays with Game of Thrones references.
Q: I thought the bathroom scene where she tried on different lipsticks, and acted out the different club vibes they represent was funny!
Q: Her almost-break up with Lawrence was funny; I think she's a bit of an avoider.

Be sure to check back with Critical Writ when we continue our review of Insecure after the second episode on October 17.

Adrian Martinez is a graphic designer, comic book letterer, hobbyist writer, and all-around geek living in New York City.