By the time they reach a fourth season, most sitcoms have settled into a comfortable rhythm. And underneath its glossy exteriors and HBO production values, Issa Rae’s Insecure has always been a sitcom—a designation that doesn’t detract from the show’s strengths, but simply puts them in context. What Insecure does best is show beautiful, charismatic people enjoying one another’s company, and to make that sustainable for the long term, it tends to return to its status quo. The most noteworthy development in Season 3 was the conspicuous absence of Issa’s ex, Lawrence (Jay Ellis), after the two reached closure on their five-year relationship. But it was a bait and switch; the two characters ran into each other in a Coachella Valley convenience store, and just like that, Lawrence was back in the game.
Such a reversal could be aggravating to fans expecting more forward momentum, both for Rae’s on-screen avatar and the show she leads. But on Insecure, stasis isn’t something to be avoided; it’s the goal. This Sunday’s season premiere opens with another parody show-within-a-show, a true-crime documentary in place of past seasons’ spoofs of Underground and Living Single. The soundtrack is still self-consciously hip, now bolstered by cameos from artists like Vince Staples and ScHoolboy Q; the conflicts (Issa’s new friend and collaborator is also Lawrence’s new love interest!) are still straight out of a soap opera; the sex scenes are still acrobatic. The main tension centers on a growing divide between Issa and her best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji), but the suspense is minimal. Molly’s role in the ensemble might change slightly, but she can’t exit Insecure any more than Lawrence could—and fans wouldn’t want her to.
So in its fourth season, what’s changed about Insecure isn’t Insecure itself. It’s what we’re bringing into it.
Insecure has long styled itself as a paean to 2010s L.A., much in the same way that Sex and the City was an ode to early-aughts New York. (Though with its emphasis on platonic coupledom, a closer comp might be Broad City.) Issa lives in Inglewood, a historically black city next door to the airport, but Insecure films all over, from iconic Hollywood locations like Swingers—site of the infamous fingering scene in Season 2—to trendier areas like the Arts District. Issa and her friends, many of them Southland natives, don’t have to choose between their identities as black Angelenos and clout-chasing millennials. They, and Insecure, can cover both terrains. The latest volume doubles down on this theme with its most prominent subplot: Issa, now working part time as a property manager and without a salaried job, is trying to organize a massive neighborhood block party highlighting local artists and businesses, a monthslong process that takes up the bulk of the season. (Five of 10 episodes were screened for critics in advance.)
It’s now common to observe the disorienting, uncomfortable feeling of watching television characters congregate in public when so many of us are sequestered in our homes. Still, there’s a particular pang of nostalgia to watching fictional people visit the real places you would visit and do the real activities you would do, if you could. Artfully staged and aspirational, Insecure is meant to be an escape. This time, it’s a far more literal one than its creators could’ve intended.
One of Insecure’s main attractions to a certain kind of fan, myself included, is a sense of recognition. Maybe we’re the same age as Insecure’s core characters. Maybe we live a few miles from Molly’s downtown high-rise or Issa’s midcentury complex. Maybe we have the same white-collar jobs as Issa’s decidedly yuppie social set, which currently range from accountant to law-firm associate to PR manager. Maybe we meet all of these criteria, or just know people who do. Many of the locations Insecure uses to signify the cast’s social milieu are familiar to people who live in L.A., especially the narrow slice of it dominated by professionals in their 30s. In the premiere alone, Issa and a friend go out to lunch at Gracias Madre, a vegan Mexican restaurant in West Hollywood that once made headlines for its $20 CBD cocktail. My neighbor worked as a server there; for the foreseeable future, he’s out of a job.
I started watching the new season of Insecure with an eye toward writing a review, looking for changes Rae and her collaborators made as they settled into long-term success. They’re there, if you look for them. Vain, self-centered Tiffany (Amanda Seales) finally has her baby, which alters the chemistry of her marriage and relationships; more broadly, Insecure is increasingly less inclined to bother with the pretense that Issa’s supposed to be struggling. A token scene has her exchanging clothes at Opening Ceremony to work new outfits into her rotation for free, but it’s barely a fig leaf on the eye-popping ensembles and picture-perfect home decor that otherwise fill the scenery. Insecure is leaning into the fantasy.
Still, these tweaks are minor compared to the massive changes happening off-screen. Insecure’s mood-lit mise-en-scène are inaccessible in the best of times to mere mortals struggling through traffic jams and bad breakouts. Now, they’re celebrations of a city on pause, and one that may never look the same. Swingers has already announced that it won’t be reopening, even after Angelenos are no longer required to shelter in place. Who’s to say what will happen to the bowling alley where Molly goes on a date or the taco truck where Issa stresses over the latest planning fiasco?
It’s a feeling not dissimilar to watching the recently concluded season of High Maintenance, another show that revels in the texture of a community that’s been forcibly disbanded. High Maintenance, at least, is unmistakably about New York in the summertime, when The Guy can cross Brooklyn by bike and street life is at its peak. The unseasonal nature of L.A. means there’s no such distance with Insecure; Season 4 may have been shot months ago, but Issa’s block party could’ve happened yesterday. And when Issa gives a speech to prospective sponsors about the importance of uplifting and protecting their community, it inevitably resonates on a deeper level than a protagonist finding a sense of purpose. Issa’s talking about gentrification, but there’s now another very palpable threat.
Insecure isn’t designed to serve as social commentary, except indirectly. (The show is very much in the “lead by example” school when it comes to representation.) But crises have a way of forcing people and things into roles they’re not accustomed to. For Insecure, that means taking a snapshot that’s suddenly more like a memento. With its crystalline drone shots of everywhere from South L.A. to the Sunset Strip, Insecure has always used its surroundings to its own advantage. When a backdrop gets stripped away, though, everything else gets pushed to the front.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.