TV shows

Awkward is the new sexy on HBO show ‘Insecure’

Issa Rae’s show is based on her experiences as a modern-day black woman trying to get the best deal out of life and love.

There is a trend of semi-autobiographical comedies on television. These are self-deprecating stories that raise questions about identity, careers, love or relationships, friendship and the eventual “What is it all about?” Some of the more successful ones include Louis CK’s Louie, Pamela Adlon’s Better Things, Lena Dunham’s Girls, and Aziz Ansari’s Master of None. Issa Rae’s television series Insecure is semi-autobiographical too, but it is different. It is also inspiring, brilliant and honestly, essential.

Issa Rae started to make YouTube videos in college in 2007. One video led to another and she created the popular web series The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl in 2011. The series was followed by a memoir by the same name and now finally, a premium network show.

Co-created for HBO by Larry Wilmore, Insecure chronicles the awkward experiences of a modern-day black woman. The show follows two friends, Issa and Molly, living in South Los Angeles and trying to get the best deal in love, life, and career.

The format isn’t a laugh-a-minute, and the humour is subtle. But it is incisive, and makes fresh observations about popular subjects such as sexuality, racism, career, relationships, and friendship. Insecure is not an extension of the YouTube videos, but an independent and more profound conversation taking place through comedy.

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‘Insecure’.

Issa (played by Rae) works at a non-profit (unfortunately named We Got Y’all) for inner-city kids. As the only black woman in a room full of white people, she agonises over with how little they understand and how much they assume. She lives with her longtime slacker boyfriend Lawrence (Jay Ellis) and is dissatisfied in her relationship, both emotionally and physically.

The opening scene of the first episode finds her at the receiving end of some very incisive questions posed by a group of adolescents. They go from “Why you talk like a white person?” “Are you single?” “What’s up with your hair?” to, importantly, “Why aren’t you married?”

A teenager bluntly tells Issa, “My dad says ain’t nobody checking for bitter-assed black women anymore.” Issa earnestly replies that black women aren’t bitter, they are just tired of being expected to settle for less. Through this short hilarious sequence, Rae highlights the struggles Issa is dealing with and trying to break away from. She has a list of what ifs she processes through internal monologues. Or more accurately that she raps about – notebook in hand, performing for herself in front of the mirror.

Her best friend, Molly (Yvonne Orji), is managing a set of completely different problems. She is a successful legal associate at a mostly white firm, and knows how to adapt to the crowd she is with. Everybody loves her. But she is still expected to be the translator whena summer intern’s loud and aggressive demeanor starts to make the partners uncomfortable. Her love life is not as much of a success though. An expert in dating apps, she finds herself single as she gets clingy as soon as three dates later.

Insecure is in complete contrast with the other Golden Globe winning comedy on the HBO network. Girls is crowded with white millennials consistently failing at life. Issa and Molly have proper jobs, proper apartments, and sane working relationships for the most part. They are confident women who are hoping for and working towards the best to happen. They may not always know how to get there, but they aren’t slacking.

Unlike Shonda Rhime’s overachieving, powerful, flawless superwomen in shows like Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, Insecure dares to depict real, raw and honest women living the basic life. Insecure is about women with identities as diverse and ever-changing as make-up – depicted in a beautifully shot sequence in which Issa tries on a whole spectrum of lipsticks when getting ready for a night out. With each new shade, she acts out different personas in front of her trusty mirror. In the end, she steps out with clear lip balm on her lips.

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Issa Rae on ‘Insecure’.
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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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For more information on special offers on flights to London and other destinations in the UK, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.