Essays · TV

How ‘Insecure’ Became a Gentrification Comedy

By  · Published on September 11th, 2017

There are coffeeshops, suddenly and everywhere.

“That was so damn true,” observed social media personality Francheska Medina on an episode of Insecuritea, the official wrap-up podcast for Issa Rae’s Insecure, which, itself, wrapped up its second season last night. For the past year, Medina and comedian Crissle West have been dissecting each episode of Rae’s show; both were among the longstanding fans of Rae’s low-budget Awkward Black Girl and eagerly followed her move to television. Insecure may be unapologetically LA, a luxuriant celebration of how the sun folds over the crisp painted concreate of neighborhoods like Inglewood and Malibu with a widely-celebrated soundtrack that doubles as veritable catalog of the Odd Future and Top Dawg Entertainment set, but, for Harlem-natives like Medina and West, the show easily transcends locale—Rae’s work symbolizes something that feels omnipresent, communicating in a cultural shorthand that feels immediate and biting. “We’re both from Harlem, we know how that works,” reflects West on a small scene early in the second season, when Rae’s eponymous character receives a noise violation notice from her management. Sure enough, by the end of the season, Issa is booted out of her apartment by incoming swish of gentrification’s rising rents. There are coffeeshops, suddenly and everywhere.

The second season of any prestige, serialized show is implicitly weighty: is this a world that an audience really wants to live in? The show’s Sunday evening HBO timeslot has been, lately, littered with half-hour, two-season burnouts (Togetherness, Enlightened, How to Make It in America), shows marked by their thickly aestheticized versions of ordinary life. Insecure’s first season, somewhat, followed this mold: two friends, Issa (played by Rae) and Molly (Yvonne Orji) navigating their way in and out of very ordinary romantic relationships and the friends made along the way, amid the curated opulence of Melina Matsoukas’s eye—the “Formation”-director was behind the camera for half of the first season.

Yet, the careful attention to mundanity felt deliberately observed (“Not everything needs to be about harrowing black suffering,” observed Morgan Jerkins in a conversation with Rae earlier this year) and, consequently, could feel piecing. In Rae’s everyday world, taboos were casually broken, discussed urgently on Twitter and revealed concerns that would become motifs. Molly’s decision, for instance, to leave a boyfriend after learning of his past interest in homosexuality was paired with the crunch point of Rae’s revealing her infidelities to her loyal  then-boyfriend, Lawrence (Jay Ellis) are two dramaturgically dynamite moments that double into mini-explorations of the tension points of black male sexuality, a theme that Rae has peruses with microscopic vigor. In the very first episode of Awkward Black Girl, a boyfriend dumps J. (Rae) because a new haircut threatens his sexuality. “No homo, but I can’t do this anymore,” he says fearfully, before leaving the door.

We read this as a capital i-issue (like Homophobia, in a very literal sense: “I just wish he hadn’t told me. I’m a mess,” Molly pined to Issa) but it’s also keenly flattened, Molly discusses the Issue with Issa and some other friends at an art gallery opening and it feels like a figment of the social-political hiding at brunch, when somebody brings up how much they earn at a social function. The juxtaposition: the (ostensibly) liberal values of art world commingle with sexual conservatism and say nothing to each other. From our angle, it becomes a scalpel, digging through webs of omnipresent ordinariness, for this, its worth noting that Issa and Molly’s jobs, working at a nonprofit and corporate lawyering, respectively, are among the least celebrated in the history of cinema, to uncover things that look ugly.

This is Rae’s most asserted tool in season two. In it, a similar eight episode run, she ditches the diligent, organized love triangles for precisely this type of scathing criticism, which fill up strange corners of the screen like a private conversation in a fresco. At the workplace, previously a set piece of innocuous Obama-era race fetishism named “We Got Ya’ll,” Issa Is forced to confront a clearly xenophobic principal, who segregates Latino children away from an educational program she is shepherding. Molly is excluded from advancing at her law firm because the firm’s partners do not see her as their equal. Lawrence is, at times, harassed by a cop, fetishized sexually by ruthless vixens he’s never seen before, and rejected economically by his mostly-white workplace. A surreal running gag follows a TV slave drama called Due North, a drama about escaping inside a comedy about wanting to stay together, obsessively occupies the season’s conscientiousness. She receives a rent increase in the mail and wanders the street of her neighborhood only to discover that it doesn’t exist anymore. She tells Lawrence, after they reunite and confess their continued and undeterred love, that the apartment they lived in “is going to make some young white couple very happy one day.”

Rae’s show, with its single-word title and vigorous documentation of her subjects’ sexuality, drew initial superficial comparisons with Lena Dunham’s flagship program on the same network (“It’s like Girls but actually funny,” pitched Les Fabian Brathwaite at Out  Less superficially, Rae’s embrace of a form of multilayered, multi-gendered comic storytelling, that holds its jokes for extra tense group get-togethers, is keenly lent from Dunham’s sense of awkward realism. Of course, the set Dunham chooses to portray are incoming Midwesterners, the first to occupy a brick-laden wonderland called Williamsburg, where they begin. Issa’s departure, the fundamental drama of Insecure’s second season, which feels both written into the background but omnipresent throughout, is the inverse of this drama, the move outward, conducted so often in grim silence and musty black and white photos and academic melancholy. Instead, Rae injects this journey with life, drawing from a collective memory of things that feel just past.  Every detail, even the bad ones, even the regressive homophobic ones, even the loud barbecue on a public park, even the bad take-out food you eat after your apartment is gone, become part of a vividly captured history. Before its, you know, gone.

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