This is the inaugural “He Could Get It,” TV editor Matt Brennan’s occasional column on the medium’s most seductive men.
Lawrence (Jay Ellis) spends the first season of Insecure getting his shit together. At the start, he’s a frustrated app developer with an ill-defined “business plan,” assuaging the pain of each bombed interview by lolling on the couch; near the end, in natty threads and with newfound confidence, he lands a gig at a tech startup and swiftly becomes its star. To watch his scenes is to see a self-improvement montage unspool in slow motion: Buying birthday supplies at Rite Aid to apologize to his girlfriend; enduring a job in retail until his headhunter can come through; preparing lamb for dinner; going on long runs through L.A.; flexing his biceps and flashing that smile, as if the knot of his discontent has at last been kneaded loose. Were his relationship with Issa (series creator Issa Rae) not in the process of coming apart, we’d call Lawrence’s arc a success story—and perhaps, for a spell, it is. He could get it, and indeed he does: When he dicks down Tasha (Dominique Perry) in the season finale, it’s a cause for celebration.
I mention this because Insecure has spent much of its second season undermining the idea that having one’s shit together is the right goal, at least as Lawrence and Issa and Molly (the indispensable Yvonne Orji) define it. The series’ most brilliant gambit may be to find the feeling of the title in places, and in people, we might not expect: Its protagonists are successful, attractive, still-young Angelenos, of the sort that float comfortably among house parties, hip bars and swanky openings, and yet it’s the characters least swayed by extrinsic markers of status—Tasha, Jered (Langston Kerman), Daniel (Y’lan Noel)—that appear most “secure” in their sense of self-worth. Lawrence’s transformation, though rarely as funny as Issa’s or Molly’s, is the leading example of this retreat from convention. After all, it’s at the moment he seems most assured that his insecurities bubble up to the surface.
His mistreatment of Tasha — “You a fuck nigga who thinks he’s a good dude,” she snipes, after he bails on her family’s picnic to flirt with a waitress — is inexcusable, but I can’t say it’s terribly surprising. In the first season’s artful construction, Lawrence and Issa’s relationship resembles that of two moons that share the same orbit, each influencing the other’s path even as the distance never narrows: By the time Lawrence resolves to become his “best self,” Issa’s already begun her dalliance with Daniel; by the time she learns to appreciate his willingness to change, he’s found an admirer in Tasha. As one approaches, the other recoils, a pattern the pair repeats again and again until their love is no longer salvageable, at least for now. When it ends, as it inevitably must, its form is yet another missed connection: As KAMAU sings “I did it just for you / And you just don’t care,” Issa returns to their apartment to find that Lawrence has already cleared out his stuff, and Molly’s is the only shoulder she has left to cry on.
In Season One, Lawrence regains his swagger for Issa—and when the relationship disintegrates anyway, swagger is all he has left. Encouraged by his fuckboy friend, Chad (Neil Brown, Jr.), a smooth and unsentimental player of “the game,” Lawrence grieves his relationship by soothing his ego; he revels in the attention of that waitress, holds Tasha at arm’s length, even swings by the old place for a cruel tryst with Issa, each hard thrust punctuated with anger, or hate. Ellis, with his bright charisma and slim, muscular frame (the man wears blue boxer briefs with conviction, let me tell you), sells it, no problem, in part because Lawrence’s discomfort with this manipulative streak is omnipresent behind his eyes. At heart, he’s “an R&B-singing-all-your-feelings type nigga,” as Chad suggests, but in the aftermath of Issa’s betrayal, he hardens himself to emotion: Taught by social expectation and (so he believes) his most recent relationship, he wears the armor of arrogance so often preferred by insecure people. When you’re in pain—and I speak from personal experience here—it’s all too easy to be a fuckboy instead of a good dude.
The genius of Insecure is that it empathizes with Lawrence’s newly sharp edges without suggesting that he deserves a pass. In fact, its meticulous structure has shaped his evolution (and, I hope, his redemption) all along: The first season’s third episode, “Racist as F—,” concludes with a sequence that presages the end of his and Issa’s relationship, and so frames their actions—his plan for self-improvement, her decision to cheat—as symptoms of their problems, and not the root cause. As directed by Melina Matsoukas, it’s a sublime, fleet-footed montage, a brief history of their romance told through the life of their couch. Once pristine, just unwrapped from the plastic, it’s now stained with memories: of sex, of work, of minor distractions and major arguments, of being together whilst growing apart. Lawrence has since come to see Issa’s one-night stand with Daniel as a rejection of the “best self” he offered when they tossed out the couch, but in truth the relationship was already over: The trouble is not that he made himself vulnerable and eventually got burned; it’s that he keeps trying to be the man he thinks other people want and loses himself in the process. The lesson here is one I suspect we all learn the hard way, and Insecure finds in it both humor and heartache: There is no “best self,” certainly not in the form of extrinsic markers, that can convince our exes, crushes, partners and flings that we’re “worth” their affection, because ours, in the end, is the only appraisal that matters. I guess what I’m saying is, Lawrence could (still) get it—he just has to get his shit together, and not for anyone’s benefit but his own.
Insecure airs Sundays at 10:30 p.m. on HBO. Read Paste’s episodic reviews here.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.