Insecure: The Ballad Of Issa And Molly

Issa Rae’s outstanding HBO comedy treats its central friendship like the treasure that it is

From its opening shots of Inglewood and thereabouts, Insecure (HBO) has been a vital map of co-creator and star Issa Rae’s hometown of Los Angeles. Unlike the sad, rich white people who crowd Silver Lake in Casual, Love, Togetherness, and You’re the Worst, Rae traces an expansive and multiracial L.A. that encompasses south and north of the 10, as well as east and west of the 101. Alternately harsh and inviting, the show’s Los Angeles includes the disadvantaged neighborhoods the fictional Issa serves via her nonprofit job; the “black Beverly Hills” where she fundraises; the soulless glass-and-gray downtown buildings where her best friend, Molly (Yvonne Orji), lives and works; and the Malibu mansions where the two women play. L.A. is America’s food capital, and Insecure knows it: Its characters partake at taco trucks, Ethiopian restaurants, chic wine bars, fast-food Chinese, Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, The Pie Hole, and K-Town’s Line Hotel.

It is, in other words, a refreshingly curious — and bracingly accurate — vision of a city generally typecast as rich, blond, and dumb. But Insecure’s impressive first season, which concluded last night (November 27), wasn’t just full of exhilaratingly current representations of Los Angeles or even black women, but also the kind of code-switching, culturally hyperspecific friendships that could arguably only arise between two people who’ve been through so many similar experiences. Within the series’s map of L.A. lies an inset of a much smaller city of two — population: Issa and Molly — that illustrates why the two women aren’t mere friends, but each other’s oasis. Hence, when they fight in this year’s penultimate episode (“Real as Fuck”), we worry despite their inevitable make-up because they know exactly where to strike for maximum damage.

Beyond the loosely autobiographical details, the sublime specificity that distinguishes Insecure from every other comedy about a protagonist who’s nearing 30 and feeling pressure to get his or her life together is the exactness of Issa and Molly’s friendship, which greatly depends on their demographic commonalities. Both educated black professionals in predominantly white offices, they regularly straddle L.A.’s racial and class divides in ways no other character on the show has to. (In true awkward-black-girl form, Rae describes her character as “not black enough for the black people and not white enough for the white people,” while Molly, the “Will Smith of corporate,” is “looooove[d]” by both groups.) Which is why Molly can grouchily roll her eyes and mutter, “Black people, stay down,” when she sees an African-American intern at her staid law office acting “too loud” and be instantly understood by her best friend. It’s also a type of camaraderie we still rarely see in mainstream pop culture, especially between women, in large part because vehicles centered around female friends of color are still few and far between.

Many if not all best friendships are based on shared histories, shorthands, in-jokes, deep knowledge of each other’s formative experiences, and the many other details that add up to a profound bond. But race, gender, class, and other institutionalized differences add new dimensions of understanding — and misunderstanding. Issa and Molly don’t see eye to eye on every issue; it’s especially painful when Issa, who spends much of her time around touchy-feely types, gently suggests that her friend try therapy only for Molly to dismiss it as “go[ing] broke paying for a fake friend.” But most of the time, they’re the only ones who can truly help one another. Molly is the inspiration for Issa taking her students to the beach — an L.A. landmark that can seem awfully remote for some kids whose municipal geography centers around the local mall — while Issa is the only one who can call out Molly’s casual racism and homophobia and be taken seriously by her often-in-denial friend. Then there’s Molly’s — and now possibly Issa’s — perpetual lamentation: that as a highly successful black woman, it’s difficult to find black men at her level. (My sole major objection to Season 1 is that Molly doesn’t quite realize how demanding or needy she is.)

With Insecure, then, Rae charts the topography of a still scarcely depicted kind of friendship, where the microaggressions of the day top the agenda for every conversation, weaving in and out between black slang and “talk[ing] like a white girl” is so frequent as to be unnoticeable, and having someone understand all the different intersections of race, class, and gender that you’re dealing with is treated like the treasure that it is. With every episode, Insecure has guided us through the idiosyncrasies of Issa and Molly’s friendship — a special understanding that exists everywhere in Los Angeles, between women, people of color, and other types of minorities who desire, just like all those sad white people, not just to be known, but to be understood immediately and completely.