“I want to make this very clear,” Issa Rae says as she describes Insecure, the HBO comedy she created and stars on. “This is not the quintessential black-woman experience. It’s a very specific experience.”
The emphasis is unnecessary. Rae, whose popular web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl and memoir with the same title catapulted her from office drone to Hollywood up-and-comer, has no trouble getting her points across. And while her show comes at a time when television finally has more than a few nonwhite characters who are not just tokens, Insecure, which premieres Oct. 9, is about as far from a generic idea of the “black-woman experience” as it gets.
Rae’s character, also called Issa, shares a sharp wit with her creator but lacks direction in work and in her relationship. “She’s me if I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” says Rae. Working at a nonprofit for inner-city kids, Issa–the character–is fatigued by her white co-workers, who treat her with a mix of condescension and curiosity. “Issa,” one asks, looking for a definition, “What’s on fleek?”
Rae compares her show to another HBO comedy–and it’s not the other semiautobiographical one created by and starring a young woman. “I always talk about Curb Your Enthusiasm,” she says. “I’m not Jewish, and there’s a lot of stuff that’s specific to that show that I didn’t get, that I had to look up. And that’s fine. It still made me laugh, and it was funny.” It’s a telling comparison. Rae’s misanthropy and determination to march to the beat of her own drum place her more in line with Larry David than Lena Dunham, or the protagonists of shows like black-ish, Empire and Scandal, prominent among a current wave of series in which race informs, but doesn’t define, the characters.
As with Curb’s milieu-specific humor, Insecure has moments that may confuse viewers less fluent in contemporary black culture, hip-hop and L.A. geography. The show is set in South Los Angeles, a place rarely shown in a positive light, and the neighborhood is a central character. “That’s the Los Angeles we wanted to depict and make sexy, the same way Entourage made Beverly Hills sexy,” Rae says. In creating a deeply textured world in which one woman flails, Insecure has some of the fall TV season’s greatest, most painful laughs.
This should come as no surprise to anyone even casually familiar with Awkward Black Girl. The web series mined, in broad and delightful strokes, the experiences of another woman like Rae, mired in a call-center job while dreaming of the chance to express herself. Today Rae calls the web series “a bit more caricaturey.” Given an HBO-size budget and the chance to collaborate with a writers’ room and showrunner Prentice Penny (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), she’s created a show with winding, serialized plotlines and a genuine sense of place. The pilot was co-written by Larry Wilmore before he left to host Comedy Central’s recently canceled Nightly Show.
“Her landscape is not crowded right now. In the world of HBO, Showtime, there’s nobody doing what she’s doing,” says Wilmore. “She gets to stand on her own, which is fantastic.”
And she’s motivated to do it. Rae says the possibility of being pulled back to a cubicle still drives her. “I’m still, to a degree, scarred by the stuff I hated about working a 9-to-5,” Rae says. “Any time I feel like getting lazy or procrastinating in my current situation, I always think back to that. Bitch, do you want to still be at that 9-to-5? And I act right.”
Television is funnier for it.
This appears in the September 12, 2016 issue of TIME.