'Insecure': Celebrating the Ordinary/Extraordinary
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The formula for comedy can be very simple. You can explore an ordinary day for an extraordinary person. Or, like HBO’s Insecure, you can strike gold by going the other way, mining an extraordinary day for an ordinary person.
Issa Rae’s brainchild (co-created with Larry Wilmore) debuted in 2016, and it quickly became a delightful half-hour oasis during the long stretch of the Trump years. While it was never a knee-slapping comedy, I posit that the success of Insecure begins and ends with the fact that it was just trying to depict real life for Millennial Black Americans. With that simple focus on a culture TV often ignores, let's take a look at how Insecure (and by extension, star/creator Issa Rae) built an iconic HBO sitcom.
What is a show about adulthood without a love storyline? A waste of time, if you ask me. And Insecure had love plotlines out the wazoo. Team Daniel? Team Nathan? Or are you a true diehard fan that reps for the LawrenceHive? (I don’t myself, but that’s just me.)
I’m not here to say that Insecure is Black Sex and the City, because that is reductive. However, I am here to say that not since Sex and the City has there been a major primetime show where the main stakes that the characters deal with center around love and relationships.
Insecure gives its romantic plots the heft and weight that other shows would dedicate to dragons, zombies, or meth to cook and sell. Because in real life, dating is the “dragon” most of us try to slay. And slay, and slay, and slay … it’s rough, y’all.
On another level, seeing Black women search for love is beautiful to see. Black women as romantic leads aren’t often featured on American television. Seeing Issa and her best friend Molly be vulnerable, either sinking or swimming in their romantic lives, humanizes them. And that allows the show to sidestep the long-standing “strong Black woman” stereotype (a positive stereotype, but a stereotype nonetheless). Black women are not monolithic. They love, they hurt, they win, they lose. We tune in every week to see if they can get their love life in order, and in a sense, it makes us wonder… can we? That dynamic is the crux of the whole romance novel industry.
Every season dedicates a portion of its storytelling to whom Issa is dating. Not to show her as a boy-crazy Millennial, but to demonstrate that who you date can creep in and affect every aspect of your life, including work.
The Career Goals
In addition to Issa’s romantic search, every season tracks her journey to finding a job (and a home). The series started with Issa at the overwhelmingly problematic after-school program “We Got Y’all,” whose mission was to mentor South L.A. youth.
We Got Y’All failed at this. A lot.
Now in Insecure’s final season, Issa has started her own community outreach company called “The Blocc,” with a mission is to show the majesty that already exists in South L.A. Watching her ascension from token flunky to creator and boss was a bumpy but satisfying road.
Issa’s long work journey highlighted the pitfalls of racism in the workplace. For instance, We Got Y’all never worried about how its company poster depicted a white hand lifting up Black children (yikes!). And Issa was constantly tokenized and asked to explain all of Black culture to her non-Black co-workers. That’s something all too relatable these days where to get ahead, Black 20- and 30-somethings often find themselves as the only brown face in the room. Being Black in America means dealing with some form of racism -- it doesn’t happen every day, but it’s also not a rare occurrence. Its is a constant presence. Insecure never offered solutions to racism, but simply acknowledged that it exists and the best way to defeat it is to work over it and keep moving forward.
This theme is also explored through Molly, a lawyer, who finds that coming from an all-white environment into an all-Black one isn’t that easy of a transition. When Molly joins the all-Black firm, she finds that not all of her creature work comforts are met. What does she do? Should she complain and compare a Black firm to a white one, or does she keep her head down and work without her precious DocuSign?
Who can’t relate to the American struggle of finding out what your “thing” is? Or the idea of finding where exactly you fit? Watching Issa and Molly wrestle with their love and work lives was a cornerstone of this show. But the main event was always…
The real love story of the series is Molly and Issa and whether their friendship can last. The weight Insecure gives to their fearsome twosome has rarely been seen anywhere else.
Far too often on television, friendship is depicted as an unbreakable bond. It’s as if nothing you say or do will ever make someone not your friend. Television has a way of portraying friendship as this magical thing where no matter what you say, they will always be there for you… like on Friends.
Insecure realizes that friendship can be fragile. And when you don’t meet your friends’ expectations, there can be friction. Season 4 was all about the fallout of Issa and Molly’s damaged friendship. Not my favorite season, but I’m glad they did it, like season 6 of Gilmore Girls. And this will be the last time I compare Insecure to Gilmore Girls, I promise.
As Issa Rae puts it, “Issa and Molly are always the center. We always start with them as a base, and every other character works around that. That has always been the foundation of every character story.”
Along with their other pals, Tiffany and Kelli, Insecure showed the delicate balancing act that is maintaining friends into adulthood. We’re all fragile, and we must handle each other with care. It reminds us that friendship is powerful but also not to be taken for granted.
The lighting, the music, and South Los Angeles itself all came together to make Insecure a work of art.
First of all, we have to talk about lighting, lighting, LIGHTING! What makes Insecure so majestic and gorgeous is the attention to detail when lighting characters. And that’s thanks to Insecure’s Director of Photography, Ava Berkofsky, who joined the show during its second season and is responsible for making everyone on the show look so damn good.
Her job was to make “Black faces not only legible but striking.” Lighting Black people is very different from lighting White people. “Rather than pound someone’s face with light, (I) have the light reflect off them,” Berkofsky says. “I always use a white or (canvas-like) muslin, so instead of adding more light, the skin can reflect it.”
According to Berkofsky, the secret to making television resemble film is providing different levels of light in the scene. “(In sitcoms), everything is the same level of brightness. That’s what I’m trying to avoid,” she says. “The trick is keeping (light) off the walls. If you keep it off the walls, you can expose for the faces and it still has a cinematic look.” Want to see for yourself? Do a Google Image Search for any screenshot of Insecure to see the lush quality the show has maintained for years.
I know it sounds corny, But Los Angeles is its own character in this show. The sweeping shots of the city, mixed with the dope soundtrack and topped off by that gorgeous lighting, leave an unforgettable impression. Berkofsky says she sought to make Los Angeles its own distinct character: “I always advocate for bigger, wider shots when we’re outside.”
Rae told the Los Angeles Times how important South L.A. was to Insecure’s legacy. “For us, there’s so much credibility and authenticity about shooting where you actually are. There’s nothing that makes me feel happier than when I see people who are from L.A. identify the streets and the locations.”
That authenticity found its way into the scripts as well. Insecure writers were allowed to use their authentic voices. Grace Edwards, a writer for the show, explains that “it was such a joy to be able to talk in a way that I talk. I’ve worked mainly on white shows and there is that translation: I would say it like this, but then I have to do that quick, Okay, but our characters wouldn’t say it like that. With Insecure, it was really great to be able to let my thoughts spill out in a way that didn’t require that translation.”
Rae says bringing those voices to the show's writing style was intentional. “I wanted it to feel like how people talk. I love sitcoms, but people talk in jokes, and I’m like, Nobody’s that witty! We were dealing with real-life circumstances while adding a tinge of humor.”
It really is just that simple: it’s real life, folks.
Years ago, The Cosby Show (and to an extent A Different World), was the gold standard for Black excellence. That series showed Black people living an aspirational life, something the culture was trying to achieve. Insecure showed Black folks who we are now.
The show gave ordinary life an extraordinary lens, spinning out story, relationships, and breathtaking cinematic visuals with the intention of showing viewers how big these seemingly small lives and moments can be. Essentially, where others may have seen molehills, Insecure saw mountains.
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Top Image: HBO