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‘Insecure’ review: Issa Rae navigates the world with insecurity, humor

Issa Rae, who first gained fame with her YouTube series, “Awkward Black Girl,” stars in and created this new comedy about two African-American friends in Los Angeles. Credit: HBO

THE SHOW “Insecure”

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Sunday at 10:30 p.m. on HBO


WHAT IT’S ABOUT Issa (Issa Rae) works in a Los Angeles nonprofit and has just turned 29. Her crisis, of sorts, begins: What to do about her very nice if unambitious live-in boyfriend, Lawrence (Jay Ellis)? After all, she has a bold future for herself — or tells herself she does. Her closest friend, Molly (Yvonne Orji), is an associate at a law firm, and is working her way through dates, and dating apps. One day, an old friend from her past turns up. Uh-oh.

MY SAY Five years have passed since the launch of Rae’s YouTube hit, “The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl” (on which this series is based).

Four years since a feature in The Atlantic wondered out loud whether Rae “could save the Black Sitcom.”

Three years since a lavish New York Times Magazine spread called her “a quirky, misanthropic . . . character, like Liz Lemon but with more melanin.”

And almost exactly a year since the announcement of the HBO series, which came with the bonus of co-creator Larry Wilmore. (He, along with Kenya Barris, had already “saved” the black sitcom in “black-ish.”)

That’s quite a drum roll. What has Rae got to show for herself after all that? For starters, nothing that will disappoint fans. Where “Awkward” was like the garage band with cheap speakers and a limited set list, “Insecure” is the high-gloss studio production with Timbaland at the controls.

Nothing much has been lost in translation, arguably much added, although that’s up to fans to decide. What they’ll get here is not one Issa but two, not one voice, but several — each fine-tuned to navigate a white world, or black world, or the world of men, or of jobs, or simply of life. Issa — no last name given — is a complicated woman in search of the real Issa. It’s also abundantly clear that the woman playing her is no Liz Lemon or Hannah Horvath (another common comparison). With “Insecure” as evidence, Issa is her own utterly unique self, or selves.

Because “Insecure” is about identity, the best scenes play out in front of mirrors — in bathrooms, or cars, or wherever a mirror and privacy are available. Issa confronts her alter-Issa — a brash, hard-rhyming, tough-talking woman who views the other Issa with contempt, as someone too soft, or too compromising.

Who is the real Issa? Neither . . . or more likely both. That’s the series, and also the wellspring of the humor, which tends to be fleeting, subtle or, in a few instances, flat-out funny. “Insecure” isn’t about punchlines anyway.

The word (and title) “insecure” is just about right, too. Molly — who’s both a refraction of and distant reflection of her pal — drifts through work, the dating scene and lovers without quite knowing where she’s going. Lonely as opposed to unconflicted, Molly doesn’t talk back to a reflection in any mirror. Meanwhile, Issa’s a closet rapper, but also repelled by the casual misogyny of rap, or some of it anyway. During an open mic night at a club, she — or the alter-Issa — performs an impromptu rap with vulgar lyrics which (of course) ends up on YouTube.

Last year, Rae posted a “letter” to her younger self on YouTube — her favored medium of expression — which began, “I would definitely stop trying so hard to be someone you’re not . . . embrace who you are.”

Good advice. Don’t expect any of it in “Insecure.”

BOTTOM LINE Good new series by an important new voice.

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