This Sunday, HBO premieres Divorce, which marks Sarah Jessica Parker’s return to the channel that made her a star. But Insecure, centred on two unmarried, professional black women living in L.A., feels like the real successor to Parker’s late-90s/early-2000s legacy. It’s Sex and the City for a new generation, one that won’t be fooled by that show’s lily-white vision of city living, or its depiction of a dating pool filled exclusively with white-collar high-earners.
Straight out of the gate, Insecure is one of the best new comedies of the fall. Created by Issa Rae and Larry Wilmore — and based on Rae’s popular web series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl — the HBO original is bold, brassy, confident, and humane, a funny and sharp tale of two best friends peering over the precipice of 30.
The first episode opens on the protagonist 29th birthday. As she enters the final year of her twenties, Issa (Rae) finds herself stuck in an unfulfilling job at a non-profit organization for inner city kids called “We Got Y’all” and an unfulfilling relationship with her boyfriend of five years. “Being aggressively passive is what I do best,” she tells us in voiceover. She freestyle-raps in the bathroom mirror to blow off steam.
The show is finely tuned to the ways Issa and her best friend, Molly (the excellent Yvonne Orji), slip into different roles around their white co-workers compared to their black friends. Molly is a corporate lawyer who’s just as comfortable nailing a presentation in the boardroom as she is winning a round of dominoes with the security guards at the loading dock. In one episode, she takes aside her firm’s new summer associate, a black woman, and suggests she tone down her language to suit the predominantly white corporate environment: “Girl, you know how white people are. If you want to be successful here, you gotta switch it up.”
It’s a joy to listen to Molly and Issa shoot the shit, slipping out of their polite work vernacular like shedding a blazer at the end of a long day. Like Sex and the City, Insecure’s greatest pleasure is the amount of time it devotes to dialogue between best friends. Molly and Issa are casually, charmingly profane in a way that makes SATC‘s dirtiest character, Samantha, look dated: “dick,” “pussy,” and “fuck” pepper their conversations, and there are no doe-eyed Charlottes to shock. “Ok, add basil, cook for one minute,” Molly reads aloud from a cookbook as she prepares dinner. “Can do, bitch.”
Insecure is also a potent tonic for TV’s mostly-white perspective on dating and sex. “Black women aren’t bitter,” Issa says in the first episode. “We’re just tired of being expected to settle for less.” When Issa’s longtime boyfriend, Lawrence (Jay Ellis) suggests Molly is single because her standards are too high, Issa shoots him a look that suggests her own standards might not be high enough — Lawrence has been collecting unemployment as he works on his “business plan” for the past four years. When her smoldering ex-boyfriend Daniel (Y’lan Noel) — Molly calls him Issa’s “Achilles dick” — sends her a birthday message, she starts to question her commitment to Lawrence.
And yet Insecure doesn’t villainize the men in Issa’s and Molly’s life. We may be tempted to see Lawrence as a deadbeat boyfriend who needs to get his ass off the couch, but the show follows Lawrence — a Georgetown graduate — on his frustrating job search and attempts to keep Issa engaged in their relationship. To Tasha (Dominique Perry), a chipper bank clerk who deposits Lawrence’s unemployment checks, Lawrence is a catch, a “good black man” with a college degree, some money in savings, and no kids.
Just as the show suggests Lawrence isn’t entirely to blame for Issa’s dissatisfaction in the relationship, it’s not so quick to let Molly off the hook when it comes to her disappointing dating life. Molly is beautiful, educated, accomplished — but she’s single, and sick of it. In the first episode, she watches, stunned, as her Asian co-worker announces her engagement to her black boyfriend. At a party, she defends herself against the accusation that black women are “difficult,” insisting, “Just because we have standards does not mean we’re difficult.” But her search for a very specific kind of educated, professional black man limits her pool of prospective mates. She can be just as superficial as any man.
Insecure is a show for and about “grown-ass” women — we don’t see much skin from either Molly or Issa, but every sex scene yields at least one shot of the man’s behind, thankyouverymuch. Issa and Molly aren’t perfect. They’re smart, funny, financially independent women who are “trying hard AF,” as the show’s tagline goes. But they can also be indirect and manipulative with the men in their lives. They’re right to insist they shouldn’t have to settle for less, but that doesn’t mean they don’t sometimes get it wrong. They’re not goddesses or queens; like most of us who are trying hard AF, they’re just people.
Insecure premieres on Sunday at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.