The blockbuster HBO show heralded a Black TV renaissance — but vulnerable, awkward, and unglamorous roles are once again missing.
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Credit: Illustration: Kaitlyn Collins, Design: Jenna Brillhart

Confession: I have never watched an episode of Full House. Despite being raised in a predominantly white suburb in West Michigan and being an obsessive tween viewer of ABC's TGIF programming block, as soon as the "Everywhere You Look" theme song came on, I immediately reached for the remote. I didn't watch Friends, either; I mostly knew it from beauty spreads about the "Rachel" haircut. Sure, I'd flipped by both shows a time or two, but it was the 1990s and I had options. 

The golden age of Black television was upon us, and my evenings were mostly spent consuming Sister, Sister, Moesha, Family Matters, Martin, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Living Single. The public school lunch fare of chicken nuggets and whatever tasteless vegetables were on tap for the week were made tolerable when gabbing about Moesha's latest love interest.   

Over the span of nearly a decade, I was immersed in television where Blackness, and coming of age while Black, was centered on some of the biggest networks. It was years later that I realized the wave of Black sitcoms that had defined my entire adolescence was a renaissance. And, aside from Mara Brock Akil's UPN comedy series Girlfriends in the aughts, we'd have to wait another decade for the enlightenment to follow.

State of the Arts Television
Credit: Getty Images

It was 2011 when Issa Rae debuted as a web series. My best friend introduced me to the viral show by saying, "Girl, it's just Black folks doing regular shit," knowing that kind of comedy was the key to my heart. "The lead character is super nerdy. She reminds me of us."

How right she was: Rae's character J was, for lack of a better description, awkward AF. She worked at a call center for a weight loss pill called Gutbuster. She hated her job. She was imperfect and fumbling through life's monotonies one cringe-inducing experience at a time. 

"I'm awkward and Black. Someone once told me those were the two worst things anyone can be," J says in the opening of the first episode. "That someone was right."

Watching J navigate work, friendships, and sex with a particular brand of irreverence Issa Rae is now known for was the kind of entertainment I hadn't seen with a Black character before. She also didn't reflect the strong Black woman or comforting mother-like stereotype who served the needs of everyone but herself, a trope I'd gotten accustomed to seeing even in the '90s. The series racked up millions of viewers, a major deal for any web-based show, let alone a narrative led by a Black woman with a quirky temperament. 

The last episode was posted on YouTube in 2013, and based on interviews at the time, even Issa Rae didn't know if there'd be space for stories like hers ever again. So when HBO offered her a two-year deal in 2016, she came back stronger, Blacker, and just as openly Insecure, which is the title she'd give her new series based on the characters of ABG. For five seasons, fans watched Issa Dee (played by Rae) evolve from an awkward Black girl to a Black woman whose interior life contained multitudes — including, still, her awkwardness. 

Issa Dee was passionate about her community but she was also about her bag. She valued her tribe of girlfriends but was more likely to have a fictionalized argument in the mirror than communicate concerns directly to friends or a therapist.

She was flawed. We saw Issa Dee strive and succeed while also repeating the same mistakes thrice. She cheated on her boyfriend, Lawrence (Jay Ellis), and passively dealt with microaggressions at work. She also had nuanced relationships with her longtime friends — particularly with her bestie, Molly (Yvonne Orji), a friendship that at one point grew so toxic it seemed like it wouldn't survive.

Issa Dee wasn't the confident, self-assured Black protagonist I'd gotten used to seeing during the '90s, and I didn't realize how desperately we needed characters like her until we had her. In the world Issa Rae created, Black women were allowed to stumble, to experience valuable and impressive growth, and to still not be perfect. They were granted nuance. They were real.
State of the Arts Television
Credit: HBO

Finally, we had options again. In 2016, Queen Sugar, Chewing Gum, Atlanta, and Luke Cage also made their debuts to much fanfare. When added to the roster of shows that were already on television — Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder, Black-ish, Power, Being Mary Jane, and Empire — the Black television landscape seemed to have entered a new renaissance. Whether you wanted to see Mike Colter as a superhero in Luke Cage or Michaela Coel's Chewing Gum character entering that liminal space between adolescence and adulthood, it really felt like there was room for all of us. 

Now, many of the shows that ushered in the new era of Black television have ended. Like Insecure, Michaela Coel's I May Destroy You came, was unlike anything airing at the time or before, and then ended, leaving viewers gaping at their screens, or constantly thinking about characters as if they'd been our real-life friends. Once again, seeing Black women depicted as vulnerable, awkward, and unglamorous is in short supply. 

So where do we turn for stories to call our best friends about? Hattie (played by Jonica "Jojo" T. Gibbs) on BET's Twenties shows a lot of promise. Abbot Elementary, starring Quinta Brunson, centers teachers in an underserved Philadelphia school. And of course, there are historical retreads, with a Wonder Years reboot focusing on a Black family in the American South in the '60s and Bel Air, which somehow revisits the story of the Fresh Prince through a dramatic lens. The currently buzzy Station 11 features a heroic turn by Danielle Deadwyler, whose character endures personal trauma, some mess, and being chronically underestimated in a modern, pandemic-ravaged setting. 

Can we thank Issa Rae for her? For any of the above shows that center nuanced Black women? It doesn't feel like too much of a leap to say yes. Through the specificity of her story, Issa Dee became universally relatable (not always beloved; sometimes be-hated, but always relatable).

She went from a flawed beginning to a fairytale-like ending and gave us an honest depiction of what growth looks like in all of its messy, awkward unevenness. Which is exactly what we were doing when she first popped on our laptops a decade ago as J. She made it okay to be awkward and Black. 

The State of the Arts is InStyle's biannual celebration of the Black creativity and excellence driving fashion, beauty, self-careand the culture at large.

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