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‘Insecure’ Review: Issa Rae’s HBO Debut is Familiar and Adventurous in Unequal Doses

The "Awkward Black Girl" creator upends convention as much as she embraces it in her HBO debut.

Insecure Issa Rae HBO

“Insecure”

Anne Marie Fox/HBO

Mirrors play a major role in “Insecure,” Issa Rae’s serialized debut on the big stage of HBO.

As Issa Dee, Rae spends significant moments of alone time staring at herself in any reflective glass she can find — in her home, at a school, at the office or after hooking up. But Issa isn’t checking her hair or looking for flaws. She’s building her confidence any way she can. Be it by rapping (an old passion slowly rising from dormancy), shouting or imagining future conversations, Issa is trying to figure out who she wants to be, by seeing what side of herself she likes best.

These moments bring out the best in “Insecure” because they’re the most courageous aspects of the young series. Cut into scenes like abrupt flashbacks and traditionally incorporated as bookends to events in real-time, we get to see inside Issa’s mind and glimpse the passion, drive and personality only sporadically apparent in the rest of the show.

READ MORE: ‘Insecure’: First Episode of Issa Rae’s HBO Comedy is Available To Stream

One could argue this is all intentional; that Rae is telling a story exactly as she lives her life, insecurities included. But these scenes also reflect the biggest issue facing HBO’s new comedy: a lack of identity.

Insecure Issa Rae HBO

Luckily, the nagging feeling “Insecure” could be far better than it is can be easily overlooked because of its age. Rae, despite finding incredible success as a web series creator after spending years studying playwriting, screenwriting, directing and more, is still new to TV, and even the most seasoned writers out there need time with their new projects to find a groove. Through six episodes, “Insecure” finds moments of originality, honesty and importance — with and without the mirror.

Many actually come from a surprising source: kids. Rae’s character works for “We Got Y’all,”a non-profit that tries to help students experience new things, offers tutoring and “generally fills in the blanks” for any youth looking for help. The opening scene of the series presents a rewarding dynamic that remains rich throughout the first half of the season. While she genuinely loves helping kids and giving back, Issa can’t help but be hurt by some of their comments; comments that cut to the heart of her insecurities, even when she has a fitting retort ready.

READ MORE: ‘Divorce’ Review: Sarah Jessica Parker Returns to HBO in Top Form

Because often, a snappy comeback isn’t good enough — especially for matters of the heart. Issa has been in a loving relationship with Lawrence (Jay Ellis) for a long time, but lately it’s been falling off track. Despite his admirable ambitions, Lawrence hasn’t been able to get it together on the job front, and tensions have been mounting at home. Will they work things out or break up? It’s here that “Insecure” continually stumbles, not because the relationship isn’t well-defined, but because it feels all too familiar.

Insecure Issa Rae & Jay Ellis HBO

Dream sequences (like the ones Issa has in the mirror) and voice overs were a staple of Rae’s “Awkward Black Girl,” but the latter combined with common single-life storylines makes “Insecure” feel like a mid-run season of “Sex and the City” (ironic, given that Sarah Jessica Parker’s new show, “Divorce,” is airing right before this one). Granted, that show was overwhelmingly white, meaning any sort of comparison is flawed from the start; especially when Rae’s perspective as a black woman (as well as a Stanford graduate in African-American Studies) is so meaningfully embraced. But the core stories of single women trying to find a partner in the big city feel tired, even when terms like “heteronormative fluidity” and “rap rape” provide brief sparks of fresh insight.

And therein lies the potential. It’s not that “Insecure” needs to pigeonhole itself with racially charged storylines or screw with relationship arcs that have been proven to work, time and time again. It’s that some scenes feel like they could have been explored further and others feel like we’ve already seen them. More experimentation occurs in later episodes and works to varying degrees. Time-lapse videos are implemented to great effect, while at least one dream sequence feels like a dangerously distracting red herring.

These evolving ideas and developing structures speak to how “Insecure” is still finding itself, just like Issa. And while we hope to see Issa keep challenging herself as the series progresses, we’re also hoping the show finds its confidence quickly.

Grade: B+

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