Insecure became very adept at creating storylines calibrated to generate conversations that became bigger than the storylines themselves. Trending topics the series inspired included: the racial and social dynamics of giving blow jobs when Issa called Tiffany (Amanda Seales) Becky for deigning to go down on her man; the validity of open marriages after Molly’s (Yvonne Orji) entanglement with Dro; postpartum depression; Black people who know how to play Spades versus those who don’t; the best regional barbecue; and whether fictional characters should be allowed to wear Black Greek paraphernalia.
This dialogue provided tangible proof to HBO, to everyone, that Insecure was successful and impactful enough to generate cultural discussions that would keep people watching week after week. This knack for generating trending topics was clearly part of the plan. Rae, with her background as a web series creator, understood what many shows have since replicated (Euphoria easily comes to mind). While social media may not constitute a show’s entire audience, the ability to mobilize people online to care about and talk about your series is the key to the survival of any series these days. Strong ratings and a strong online presence equal success.
I never directly engaged with the online conversations myself, but they were so ubiquitous on platforms like Twitter and Instagram that it was impossible to be unaware of them. The conversations I was having with friends about the show offline were mostly about how solidly Insecure had managed to embed itself in the culture, creating an almost communal watching experience that included not just loyal viewers but anyone with a Twitter handle and an opinion. Was the show’s entanglement with the Timeline to its detriment or to its advantage? And what about strong storytelling?
As critic Angelica Jade Bastien aptly put it in a review, “Insecure is the kind of series meant to be experienced but not studied;” with storylines like the Condola baby bomb, it was often “all soap operatics, no depth.” The draw of Insecure was its ability to make the everyday and mundane feel like an escape, like kiki-ing over drinks with friends. There were lots of vibes: excellent music supervision by Raphael Saadiq; slick and stylish direction by Melina Mastoukas; beautifully lit, melanated skin and LA vistas shot by cinematographer Ava Berkofsky.
When I think about Insecure—not just the discourse around it—I think mostly about the vibes, the fact that the way the show looked was as important to its DNA as its understanding of how to harness and engage with a social media audience. It was not a coherent plot or fully developed characters that defined the show, but the way it visually centered the Black femme body and the landscape of Black LA, a beautiful collage of cinematography, music, and costume design that elevated every episode into, ultimately, a celebration of Black beauty.
Vibes do indeed make for beautiful TV. They don’t always make for compelling stories. By season 3 of Insecure, after the Lawrence versus Issa drama was seemingly over, the storylines devolved, running aimless circles within the confines of a tricky half-hour comedy runtime. They were still juicy enough to encourage Twitter debate, of course, but they didn’t always make sense for the characters themselves. It’s not a bad thing that Insecure pulled from the culture it sought to represent. It’s just that it didn’t always feel as though it had much to really say about any of these topics. Instead, it presented scenarios that functioned more as discussion prompts than mechanisms for the story to move forward organically. It was the audience who had something to say, who would in a sense reflect back to Insecure what its themes represented.
Awkward Black Girl was different: surer of its narrative tone and point of view, more engaged with the audience’s conversations but perhaps less beholden to the crowd. On Insecure, we see this with the breakdown of Molly and Issa’s relationship in season 4. This provided a lot of fodder for debate, leading to an eventual Molly backlash online that perplexed the writers, who thought it came across that both Molly and Issa had been bad friends (it hadn’t). This storyline catalyzed a lot of interesting Twitter threads and think pieces about the reality of friendship breakups, but to me it was an example of the show presenting a juicy plotline with a bang, only to eventually resolve it with a whimper.
In the series finale, a convenient time jump allowed for an entire season’s worth of friendship drama to be wrapped up with a frantically tied bow. The loving moment shared between Issa and Molly after the latter’s wedding was beautiful, yes, but also very tacked on. With as much time that was spent chronicling the disintegration of their friendship and as much debate that this breakdown had generated, the lack of time dedicated to their tenuous reconciliation felt like a letdown. Particularly because Issa and Molly, not Issa and Lawrence, were the core relationship of the show.
When I think a lot about the layered meta-narrative of the show, particularly Issa Dee’s on-screen glow-up in the context of Issa Rae’s real-life glow-up, it’s clear Insecure always shined when it revealed the awkwardness of life and the constant yearning so many of us feel as we enter true adulthood—a yearning for the completion we think will come with the right job or the right partner. It’s impossible to know how much the pressure was internal or external, but it’s palpable to me when I watch the show. The sleeker Insecure got, the more distant it felt from its Awkward Black Girl roots and the vaguer it became in its point of view. Similarly, the more successful Rae became—the more polished, the more relevant—the more pressure, I imagine, there was to make herself and Insecure a gate opener, a legacy builder.
In a 2021 interview with Taryn Finley, Rae spoke candidly about what she believes comes next: “I’m back to feeling like, ‘OK, will I have longevity past this?’ . . . I’m entering into the next chapter and my next phase. I had a web series. I have a TV show. Kind of, what else can I do? And how else can I have an impact? And I don’t know.” Rae’s statement mirrors the entire last season of Insecure. The “I don’t know,” this anxiety around whether we’re ever—no matter how much we grow—doing enough, doing good.