We here at TVWriter™ believe it is and have said so for years. Here’s another look at the concept:
by Shannon Liao
In its current form, the HBO comedy Insecure often looks and feels like a lush, feminist rap video that pays tribute to black excellence and corporate success. The show is centered around two black women in their late 20s who live in LA. It’s also insanely awkward, channeling the same humor creator Issa Rae used on her YouTube series The F Word, I Hate LA Dudes, and Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. Although HBO executives have said Insecure isn’t a direct adaptation of Rae’s other series, Rae’s writing has a unique, authentic voice that shines through across all platforms. The show was renewed for a third season in August.
Episode 1 of the original Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl show, posted in 2011, begins with a few piano chords and an illustration of Issa in a magenta shirt that says “ABG.” It shows Rae as “J,” looking washed-out in a car under the glaring sun. The camerawork is shaky, and the scene cuts make the three-minute video feel like a Vine. The plot is simple: Issa raps along to the radio enthusiastically in her car, then has an embarrassing run-in with her co-worker. Awkward Black Girl’s production quality is rough, but its reception on YouTube was enthusiastic. Commenters marveled that Rae had tapped into something in the public psyche, and identified a strand of humor the world needed more of. They posted responses like, “It is so good and so relevant to who I am. Much love to Issa Rae,” and “Bitch, this is what should be on Netflix! Eight stars!”
HBO programming president Casey Bloys was one of Rae’s online fans, and he let his team know about how she was being received. Seeing the audiences she was able to draw, HBO executives reached out to her in 2013, expressing interest in a partnership. They didn’t quite want to turn Awkward Black Girl into a pilot, however. Instead, HBO wanted to explore Rae’s creative ideas. How could she riff off Awkward Black Girl to tell a story that would fit a 30-minute time slot? Although Rae and HBO entertained the idea of an office comedy called Nonprofit, according to HBO executive Amy Gravitt, they ultimately felt that a show located in a single office wouldn’t have enough material to explore. Instead, they developed a series revolving around three main characters — Issa Dee, her best friend Molly, and her boyfriend Lawrence. As the characters grow up and apart, the show found plenty of material to mine besides petty office dramas.
After Rae piqued HBO’s interest, she spent a hard three years nailing down the details of what would become Insecure. Former talk show host Larry Wilmore signed on as the show’s co-creator. Rae then had to hire directors, actors, and producers, fleshing out a staff that had previously just been her. But the move to HBO still keeps a lot of the original YouTube series’ overly awkward sentiments alive, and it fleshes out more of Issa’s life. Symbolically, her character’s name goes from “J” to “Issa Dee,” which is a closer iteration of her real name, Jo-Issa Rae Diop. On an HBO budget, Rae was able to better depict Windsor Hills, the affluent black neighborhood in California where she grew up — and in season 2, the gentrification of nearby Inglewood.
Earlier in 2017, Insecure was renewed for a third season. But Issa Rae isn’t the only web series creator experiencing the mainstream’s embrace right now. Comedy Central recently greenlit the fifth season of Broad City, a comedy about two Jewish-American women trying to make it in New York. Broad City originated as a web series that premiered on YouTube in late 2009. In April, black comedian and activist Franchesca Ramsey signed on with Comedy Central to make a still-unnamed late-night comedy TV pilot. And the web series Brown Girls, headed by co-stars Sam Bailey and Fatimah Asghar, got picked up by HBO in June for an adaptation.
So why are we seeing so many web series getting adapted for television lately? In this age of GoPros, neatly curated social media presences, and streaming services on demand, creators can design and shoot their own series, then serve as their own agents and manage their own online star power. As Webby Awards CEO David-Michel Davies says, “If you go back and look at webisodes in 2007, the quality of the ones made today are much, much higher, because the access to production is so much higher.” The road to becoming a TV star appears smoother than ever. And lately, we’ve been getting more of these perfectly curated DIY packages of talent and PR. A simple search for “web series” on YouTube garners 41.6 million results today. As more web series are posted online, more are getting noticed….