Issa Rae’s bracingly honest and enjoyable HBO dramedy “Insecure” arrived last fall wearing the telltale polish that HBO applies to nearly all its shows — a refining process that tightens scripts, improves structure and, in this case, elevated the original pluck of Rae’s did-it-herself webseries into a funny/sad exploration of a woman at odds with her own doubts and awkwardness. The title of the show couldn’t be more perfect.
The “Issa” character that Rae plays is an exuberant but easily wounded friend. She cheated on her live-in boyfriend, Lawrence (Jay Ellis), and realized at the end of Season 1 how much she hurt them both. The show returns Sunday with Issa at a personal nadir, desperate to win back Lawrence’s love and still repairing her best-friendship with Molly (Yvonne Orji), with whom she traded harsh words and even harsher truths.
My recapping instinct here is brought on by the sneaking suspicion that a lot of viewers meant to watch “Insecure” and never found time to do so. There’s a lot of that going around these days, where the best of TV intentions succumb to another “House Hunters” rerun.
There’s also a longer and more necessary conversation to have here, exploring the reasons a show about young black women having some sex in the city can make it to the same Sunday-night slot occupied by Lena Dunham’s “Girls,” yet can’t get similar traction with a bigger — and yes, whiter — audience. The talking we did about Hannah and Marnie in “Girls” far outweighs the talks we skipped about Issa and Molly in “Insecure.” Let’s not pretend we don’t know why. It’s heartbreaking to see viewers decline this open invitation to broaden their TV diets.
This time HBO has given “Insecure” a somewhat better chance of broadening its reach, scheduling it in the hour after “Game of Thrones,” which is a demographic category-killer if ever there was one. I love the idea of “Thrones” fans sticking around long enough to get to know Issa (and vice versa), and pleased to report that “Insecure’s” second season has packed its first four episodes with just the sort of real-life humor and topicality that should appeal to anyone. Like “Girls,” “Insecure” asserts its right to be about imperfect characters who occasionally make unwise, self-absorbed choices. That’s a heck of a lot better than having to play a role model or drive home a message.
Without ever being too on-the-nose, “Insecure” has something to tell its audience about the lived experience of seeking life and career successes while black. Issa continues to work at a youth-outreach center — saddled with the no-fun name of “We Got Y’all” — that focuses on minority teenagers at schools in the Inglewood and Crenshaw parts of southern Los Angeles, where her white co-workers always seem to know better about what these kids need. Molly, meanwhile, is an attorney at a big downtown firm, where she has learned, thanks to a paycheck mix-up, that a white male colleague with the same job title and experience earns considerably more than she does.
In an obvious nod (and sharp jab) to the recently departed WGN America drama “Underground,” the characters in “Insecure” are obsessively hooked on a cable TV series about 19th-century Southern slaves and their white owners. In one scene, an antebellum mistress punishes a housemaid for reading (“That’d better be a cookbook!” she snarls); another scene is an erotic prelude to a secret relationship between the housemaid and her master, while the master’s young child peeks from behind a door.
“Insecure” doesn’t stop to examine why Issa and her friends would be so devoted to this show, which comes across as an exercise in melodrama. As Issa and others watch, a glimpse at their solemn faces says a lot about how popular culture has both ignored and now fetishized the slavery experience in American history; in a more meta sense, “Insecure” picks up on their duty as black viewers to tune in. It’s as if the show is telling us that we all have shows that feel like assigned watching rather than pure entertainment.
Issa and Molly and their friends are unsparing when playfully insulting one another, perhaps because the people in “Insecure” who aren’t black are responsible for the real hurt, issuing a steady supply of slights. Lawrence makes an illegal U-turn in heavy traffic and is pulled over by a white police officer, while other drivers who did the same go free, giving the viewer the sense of how such encounters can no longer be viewed as benign, especially if you’re the black man behind the wheel. Not long after, Lawrence accepts the invitation of two white women to have a threesome, where it becomes plain that even here his worth is being judged purely on his race.
“Insecure” never dwells too long on these incidents or converts them into a thematic harangue; rather they are woven into a narrative of sharp, almost cruelly humorous anecdotes that, like the best of HBO’s half-hour shows, take us into a social space viewers otherwise might never visit. I’m thinking here of the high-tech maneuverings seen in “Silicon Valley,” the privileged lifestyles of “Entourage,” the hipster ennui of “Girls” and the cutthroat Washington of “Veep.” “Insecure” deserves the love and rapt attention that HBO’s core viewers have shown to these.
Insecure (30 minutes) returns Sunday at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.