It’s nighttime in Los Angeles. Or, to more accurately locate the universe of HBO’s Insecure, it’s nighttime in Inglewood. That’s evident upon watching the opening moments of the show’s second season, which feature a number of familiar establishing shots from the South L.A. neighborhood. One can’t help but notice that the introduction to “Hella Great” bears a striking resemblance to that of the show’s pilot. Each contains requisite shots of locales like Randy’s Donuts and the Forum, and in the background blares a cherry-picked track (Kendrick’s “Alright” in season one, NxWorries’s “Scared Money” here).
The primary point of distinction between the two season openers is the time of day, as once-sunny locations are now cast in darkness. Given the ending of season one, the show’s darker hues shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Last we saw Issa (Issa Rae), she was crying on the dilapidated couch outside of her apartment, best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji) and bottle of wine in tow. With Issa expecting reconciliation with her boyfriend and instead facing heartbreak, season one ended on a dour note. The shift from bright blue skies to black suggests it will take some time before post-breakup Issa returns to being her sunny self—a sentiment Issa reinforces in “Hella Great” when she compares her life to a gas gauge pointing toward “E.”
Nighttime means another thing for young Angelenos: date night. And what a dreamy date night we stumble upon, with Issa and an especially dapper-looking Lawrence (Jay Ellis) seeming to patch things up. But we’re just in Issa’s head. And why shouldn’t we be? It’s the venue that’s given us unparalleled insight into Issa’s personality and capacity for creative expression, not to mention a fantastic Ty Dolla $ign cameo.
Crucial to “Hella Great” is the triumphant return of Issa’s rapping and self-talk, first seen when her daydreamed date with Lawrence melts away to reveal a less than ideal evening. Amid a montage of mediocre suitors, the monotony of first-date questions—“Where are you from?” and “What do you do?”—builds to a rhythm and rap, which Issa delivers with aplomb without, significantly, the aid of a mirror. It’s a small yet meaningful omission, one that indicates a more creative approach to story construction while allowing us to see more of Issa’s inner monologue at any given moment.
While Issa and Lawrence’s breakup is certainly the thrust of “Hella Great”—and will likely be at the center of the entire season—Insecure is a show about an entire milieu, not just a central romantic relationship. As such, the episode does the work that most season premieres do: It provides the bones and plotlines upon which the season will stand. But Insecure isn’t the kind of series that oversimplifies complex problems. For instance, Molly’s starting therapy isn’t a quick fix. She reveals to Issa—via the shorthand best friend-speak that Insecure excels at—that she’s already chewed through a few therapists, much like she cycles through men. (The conversation also showcases the show’s comedic chops; my sympathies to Molly, who had to explain the term “woke” to Dr. Rosenberg.)
The series also subtly nods to the fact that therapy isn’t available to everyone. Molly is a corporate lawyer living in a swanky downtown apartment, and in one aside, Issa implies that she’d consider therapy if she had health insurance. It’s a small reminder that Insecure takes place in the real world, where the experiences of the characters who live in it are textured and authentic, and where access to mental healthcare isn’t a given.
Speaking of the real world, “Hella Great” also introduces the workplace woes that the women will be struggling with this season, whether it’s Issa’s efforts to rustle up interest among teenagers for the education nonprofit We Got Y’all or, more resonantly, Molly’s discovery that she makes less than her white male co-worker. Though Insecure has tackled issues of race in the workplace before, wading into the dicey socioeconomic waters of a law firm ups the ante.
Insecure may have much in common with Master of None, Atlanta, and other auteurist dramedies of the day, but it’s just as indebted to black sitcoms like Girlfriends, A Different World, and Living Single. Indeed, the centerpiece of “Hella Great”—Issa throwing a party in the hopes of impressing her ex—is a classic sitcom trope in which everything, of course, goes wrong (cue the Bloods’s arrival and a kitchen fire). But where a sitcom might end with romantic reconciliation and whoops from a live studio audience, Insecure pulls us back for a decidedly tragicomic ending. Sure, Issa and Lawrence may end up sleeping together at the end of the episode, but it’s one of the show’s least appealing sex scenes to date: quick, dirty, and hardly romantic. And yet, the moment still elicits a small smile from Issa.
Much more than a question of “Will they or won’t they?,” the episode embraces all of the confusion, bad decisions, and mixed emotions that result from a breakup. Not much may happen in Insecure, per se, but it’s the sort of series that values watching women figure things out one step at a time, even if they’re not wholly empathetic or selfless along the way. Earlier in the episode, Issa tries to encourage high school teenagers, only to learn the hard way that as opposed to enthusiastic middle schoolers, teens “push back.” When Issa’s efforts don’t go as planned, her boss, Joanne (Catherine Curtin), invokes Ice Cube. Though it isn’t the most graceful attribution, the sentiment speaks to Issa’s aspirations: “You can do it if you put your back into it.”