HBO's 'Insecure' soars by staying true to its revolutionary mission
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:
HBO's "Insecure" starts its fifth and final season tonight, centered on awkward 30-something Issa Dee and the lives of Black millennials in Los Angeles. In this clip from Sunday's episode, Issa, played by creator and star Issa Rae, is attending a 10-year reunion at Stanford University. And her return to campus is - well, it's awkward.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INSECURE")
ISSA RAE: (As Issa Dee) Hey.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Issa, we can all tell who you can't remember by the tone of your hey.
RAE: (As Issa Dee) Is it that obvious?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Hey.
RAE: (As Issa Dee) Hey.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Real smooth, girl.
FOLKENFLIK: Here to talk about the show's return and what it means that the series' run is ending is NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Hey, Eric.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hey.
FOLKENFLIK: So I remember watching Season 1, and Issa Rae's character really popped for me. Why was what she was doing different?
DEGGANS: Well, I think it all goes back to the show's initial approach. Now, I interviewed Issa Rae back in 2016, just before the show debuted, and she told me that at a time when we had these Black-led series that featured women who were political masterminds or high-powered record executives, it felt like a revolution just to create a TV show about average Black millennials.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
RAE: We don't get to do that. We don't get to, like, just have a show about regular Black people being basic. I remember, like, even, like, a Black woman that I could, like, relate to and be like, oh, I can relate to her decisions or I can relate to her essence - that didn't happen. I mean, I think "Moesha" was the last show where I remember - oh, this is just a regular Black girl.
DEGGANS: And "Moesha," you might remember, debuted on the now defunct UPN network back in 1996. But Rae said it was a real inspiration for her. She had attended a taping of the show, and she even used one of its scripts as a template for her own writing.
FOLKENFLIK: We got to be careful about spoilers, of course, but you know, you said that the last season ended on something of a cliffhanger. What can you tell us about what happens in this new season?
DEGGANS: So fans know that the friendship at the heart of this show between Issa Dee and her one-time best friend, the perfectionist lawyer Molly, who's played by Yvonne Orji, has been strained all through last season. And as the new season opens, they're tiptoeing around each other at the Stanford reunion. They're trying to figure out where their friendship stands. And I thought that was, like, a great creative choice because one of the strengths of "Insecure" is its authentic depiction of friendships among Black women. So to see the core relationship kind of tested as the two women grow and they start to ask these really serious questions about the choices they're making in life, it feels like a great sort of allegory for how the show has grown up, too.
So in the fifth season, "Insecure" is staying true to its original focus. It's showing Issa and her friends negotiating romances and career choices and friendships. It's just a pleasure to see Black characters that aren't always rooted in trauma or pain negotiating lives that look a lot like the real world.
FOLKENFLIK: It seems as if TV networks and streaming services have gotten a lot less worried about whether white audiences will watch shows with mostly Black characters. How does "Insecure's" success play into that?
DEGGANS: Well, I think it's one of the series that helped make the case that something like that could work. I mean, in a recent interview, Rae said that she was advised to put white characters in this web series that she created in 2011 called "The Misadventures Of Awkward Black Girl" because that would make white people care, and then NPR would do a story, and it would take off. And in 2011, NPR did do a story. Michel Martin talked to her. But I don't think it was about the show's white characters. You know, we have all learned, I think, that when TV creators make a show that's culturally authentic, it feels different, but it's also communicating these universal human truths. And I think that's what's happened with "Insecure."
FOLKENFLIK: So let's take a moment to talk about Issa Rae herself. She's made a lot of strides, hit a lot of benchmarks as a creator of media, as an executive producer, as an actor. What are some of the big projects she's intending to take on after "Insecure" ends its run?
DEGGANS: She's got a new series on HBO Max called "Rap - you know, it's the curse word we can't say on the radio.
DEGGANS: And she's an executive producer on the HBO comedy series, "A Black Lady Sketch Show," you know, which just finished its second season. And she's putting together a film with Jordan Peele's production company. You know, when Issa Rae first sort of burst onto the scene, I think there was this hope that artists like her would be the vanguard of a growing number of non-white producers, show creators and stars. And I think Issa Rae's journey with "Insecure" seems to be a great example of how that's worked out.
FOLKENFLIK: That's NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Eric, thanks.
DEGGANS: Always a pleasure.
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