Issa Dee – the character that writer-creator Issa Rae plays on her HBO show Insecure – is not a perfect person; her decision-making can be as sketchy as her rap skills. But she’s raw and eccentric and stubborn, or as Dee likes to say, 100-percent “no-fucks me.” In other words, she’s giving us comedy that we can use right now, as the country lurches into yet another four-year nightmare that will demand all of the hard-ass stoic gumption we’ve got.
Over the course of Insecure‘s excellent, already-in-progress rookie season, she’s developed her viral YouTube hit The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl into a vibrant premium-cable comedy that doesn’t compromise on the girl, the black or the awkward. Rae plays herself (in more ways than one) as an arty twentysomething misfit in South Los Angeles, working with an inner-city non-profit for school children called We Got Y’all, where her white co-workers consult her on what exactly “on fleek” means. Meanwhile, the kids tell her things like, “My dad says ain’t nobody checking for bitter-ass black women.” But she can’t deny she’s got a thing or two to be bitter about.
Insecure stands tall in this year’s astounding freshman class of confessional comedies, following in the wake of Louie. When Louis C.K. elbowed through the doors of the sitcom format a few years ago, it turns out he was opening up room for all sorts of fellow travelers to stumble in his footsteps, bringing problems even nastier and crises even funnier than his, courtesy of followers as varied as Donald Glover’s Atlanta, Pamela Adlon’s Better Things, Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi or Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag. On a superficial level, none of these comedies look all that much like Louie — or like each other. But what they share is that rebel spirit, refusing to tone down the characters’ abrasive edges, not turning them into precious adorkable hug-puppets or cartoon cranks, not resolving their flaws into convenient TV personas. Rae’s meta-sitcom succeeds because her heroine fun to hang with for a half hour, but it’s the kind of comedy that wouldn’t work unless she makes her avatar tough to root for sometimes.
Issa’s fictional counterpart spends a lot of her time wondering out loud why she’s made such a wreck of her life. She does rap freestyles into the bathroom mirror, which double as comic diary entries. Faced with a drink and a live microphone, she’ll also jump up to perform them onstage, as in her rap “Broken Pussy.” Insecure (which she co-created with Larry Wilmore, late of The Nightly Show) gives her a host of full-grown neuroses, grappling with sex, money, race and the legacy of Nineties R&B. (One man tries to sweet-talk her by comparing her to “the missing ingredient in Oaktown 3-5-7. The nine, if you will.”) As she gets ready to kiss her twenties goodbye, she has trouble deciding if her longtime boyfriend Lawrence is good enough for her (or too good for her), while they keep falling into petty squabbles: “We are not about to be the black couple fighting in Rite Aid!” And she’s tempted by her weakness for long-simmering crush Daniel – or as she calls him, her “Achilles’ Dick” – and her lawyer BFF Molly, a dating app junkie.
Dee makes disastrous moves professionally, sexually and in every other way – a soulful slacker with the broken-pussy blues. Like her character, Insecure can be a hot mess and a half, which is a big part of the Louie legacy too, since abandoning the well-worn rhythms of TV comedy means taking chances to find something new. But Insecure has an emotional punch that makes it a welcome presence – the kind we’ll be counting on and clinging to as we head into one hell of a long, cold winter.