White walkers, FBI portals and the latest D.C. headlines are taking up their share of the weekend TV conversation these days. But those who turn off HBO early after “Game of Thrones” are missing out on the evening’s true TV highlight. For the second week in a row, it’s Issa Rae’s “Insecure” that’s been the best show on Sunday night.
The Season 2 premise so far might be simple: Two halves of a recent break-up sort through their feelings while one tries to move on. In Sunday night’s episode, a recent hookup has both Issa (Issa Rae) and Lawrence (Jay Ellis) thinking about the long-term relationship they’ve lost. In its second season, “Insecure” has broadened its scope to include more of Lawrence’s perspective. The result is a series that’s elevated itself beyond a simple will-they/won’t-they without sacrificing Rae’s strong creative voice.
Issa’s mirror verses that helped to center the show through its first batch of episodes are still there, helping to illuminate how she motivates and copes in equal measure, especially as her romantic life is up in the air. Those bathroom reflection psych-ups are reaching a whole new level as Issa continues to play out fantasy hypotheticals in her mind before being pulled back to reality. In Sunday night’s episode, “Hella Questions,” Issa’s dream sequence punching of Lawrence’s new fling Tasha wasn’t a cheap fake-out because the show has already used her own heightened sense of reality to inform how she sees the world.
Those Hypothetical Issa moments are just a tiny element of what makes “Insecure” such a great showcase for its star. She excels in the outrageous, but also nails the smaller jokes as well. (Few other actresses could pull off “…nebulous fuck?” with the same blend of sheepishness and optimism.) Her quick move to hide from Tasha in the bank parking lot is also the funniest bit of carseat maneuvering this side of Charlie Day.
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And there are plenty of ways the show uses the freedoms of TV to approach character insight through its other central cast members. “Insecure” is flexible in responding to things happening outside Issa’s immediate focus, and this season has also brought a better understanding Issa’s friend Molly (Yvonne Orji). Through Molly’s job at a high-powered law firm, “Insecure” has taken on the effects of pay disparity in the workplace and the psychological effects it has on professional relationships.
Orji’s performance also highlights how this show is taking a fresh approach to well-worn TV tropes. The therapist’s office has long been a place for shows to get a shortcut into a character’s mindset. But Molly’s most recent visit made a thorough, explicit reference to how she uses language to describe her own situation, all based around the word “should.” Molly may have dismissed the process at the end of this week’s session, but it’s another fertile place for self-evaluation if/when the show returns there.
Lawrence’s internal journey hit a few snags this weekend, and it’s another strength of “Insecure” that it showed that turmoil without him having to say anything. His deleted text to Issa, his trepidation about getting his own place and the puppy dog walking away from Tasha’s front yard all say what Lawrence is feeling before Ellis opens his mouth. When the jokes do fly, Lawrence’s temporary host Chad (Neil Brown, Jr.) has stepped in as a stealth Season 2 MVP. (Awkward silence + juice sips = comedy.)
The show is also using Los Angeles to its full advantage, not just in sweeping aerial shots above downtown, but with moody restaurant interiors, twilight heart-to-hearts and sunlit schoolyard conversations all reinforcing the atmosphere the city creates for the unfolding drama. Melina Matsoukas, one of the most exciting directors working in TV today, takes full advantage of those natural L.A. charms, helping to craft a visual representation of Issa and Lawrence’s respective states of heartache (or lack thereof).
“Hella Questions” sprinkled in a little bit of everything. It was a relationship comedy, a workplace drama, a detective show, a window into the state of public education all wrapped up into one. And it’s all backed by one of the best soundtracks on TV. Rather than be filler for a succession of establishing shots, tracks from NxWorries, SZA and Matt Martians do just as much to tap into the spirit of each individual scene as the performances or visual approach.
“Insecure” isn’t afraid to take risks: Just ask the racist principal who controls that fate of Issa’s volunteer program. Whether it’s the stylistic switch-ups, POV switches or a literal house fire ending the season opener, it’s a show built on a solid foundation with enough nimbleness to keep it from getting in a rut. More eyeballs may be hooked elsewhere on Sunday nights, but this is HBO’s true show of the summer.
“Insecure” Season 2 airs Sunday nights at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.