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‘Insecure’ Review: Issa Rae’s Comedy Returns as a Quietly Groundbreaking Snapshot of Black LA Life

An ambitious Season 4 spells trouble for Issa and Molly's friendship, while the series wisely pivots from focusing on the foibles of millennial dating life.

Insecure

Yvonne Orji and Issa Rae in “Insecure”

Merie W. Wallace / HBO

IWCriticsPick

“I don’t fuck with Molly anymore.” Those are the first words said by Issa Dee, played by co-creator and star Issa Rae, in the beginning of Season 4 of HBO’s “Insecure.” She’s talking, of course, about her best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji), one half of an inseparable pair that goes way back. If you’ve kept up with “Insecure” the last four seasons, then you know that for Issa to say “I don’t fuck with Molly anymore” means a tectonic shift is afoot.

Once the scene is revealed to be a flash-forward, this foreboding cold open sets the stage for a new season that is all about distance: the distance you put between yourself and feeling vulnerable again, the distance showing up between you and your best friend, and the distance between you and your ex, whose new girlfriend you’re getting to know.

Yes, that’s right. After seasons of breakups, breakdowns, hook-ups, and fuck-ups, Issa’s latest unhinged endeavor is working with, and becoming close friends with, her ex-guy Lawrence’s (Jay Ellis) new flame Condola (Christina Elmore, charismatic star of Lena Waithe’s “Twenties”). Issa has partnered with Condola to put together the ambitious block party she’s planned for her Inglewood neighborhood, but their professional relationship understandably takes a hit once Issa tunes into what’s going on in Condola’s dating life. Issa, always on the sleepless quest toward adulting, tries to make the most of it, and even takes the opportunity to check in with Lawrence. He’s, meanwhile, sweating at the idea of his longtime ex gabbing over tacos about his worst habits with his new boo.

But Issa’s still hustling, working as the super of her L.A. apartment complex and navigating her friendships. The quietly groundbreaking aspect of this season is just how little weight is given to her dating life and more toward her interior journey as an early 30-something black woman in Los Angeles. “I’m on this forward path. No job, no man. All this sounds bad, but it’s actually really good,” she tells Molly over stoned yoga during their weekly “self-care Sunday” ritual. Molly, meanwhile, is still dating Andrew (Alexander Hodge), aka Asian bae, from last season. Her romantic life, while not without its rockiness, is already more promising than that of Issa, who’s engaged in a dial-a-dick situation with a chubby, but sweetly doting TSA agent.

Issa’s increased attention on Condola and her commitment to executing the perfect block party to bring her fragmented community together, starts to drive a wedge in her relationship with Molly, who’s jealous over her BFF building a life that has little to do with her. “When we wanted Neko Case,” Molly tells Andrew of an event she put on, “that bitch did not show. I ordered a seafood tower!” It’s painfully believable that these two might start to go their separate ways in their mid-30s, even after three seasons and presumably a prior lifetime of closeness, inside jokes, and mutually weathered hardships.

"Insecure"

“Insecure”

Merie W. Wallace

What continues to make “Insecure” such a singular experience is how it handles stories of black lives and of millennial lives growing up. Both are obviously top of mind for Issa Rae and co-creator Larry Wilmore, but there’s never any agitprop or mic-grabbing, and she’s not trying to be the voice of a generation. Neither is she ironic or cynical in the way some of Rae’s contemporary TV writers and creators are.

“Insecure” stumbles a bit in balancing omniscient storytelling versus Issa’s precise, first-person perspective. The first half of this season struggles to cram in a lot of characters, and sometimes they get lost in the shuffle of an ensemble where every player is strong, specific, and distinct enough to demand their own episode or storyline. The writing remains oddly coy about Condola and her inner life, despite occasional peeks into the behind-the-scenes of her relationship with Lawrence, haunted by the ghosts of the past. Some crucial information, including an important reveal a few episodes in, is withheld from the audience where it shouldn’t be.

Still, minor gripes. This season is, as ever, expertly directed, with Kevin Bray (“black-ish”) taking the reins on the first episode, and Thembi Banks, Mark Sadlek, Nijla Mumin, and Stella Meghie helming the rest of the first five episodes provided to press. “Insecure” remains, hands down, the best-shot series set in Los Angeles currently on television, and it treats the city with respect and appreciation. Where Netflix’s winter hit second season of “You” offered a shallow parody of L.A.’s yoga-doing, oat milk-slurping population, inducing eye-rolls for anyone who actually lives there, “Insecure” has empathy for the city of dreamers and hustlers. It’s a treat to play “I spy” with the various landmarks and neighborhoods that are rendered vividly alive, and Rae continues to use the landscape as a sandbox in which to explore hard truths with often wincing hilarity.

Grade: A-

“Insecure” premieres on HBO on Sunday, April 12 at 9 p.m. ET.

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