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The subversive pleasures of HBO’s Insecure

When the Emmy nominations were announced recently, there was some consternation that HBO's Insecure and its star and creator, Issa Rae, were ignored.

Insecure (returning for Season 2 on Sunday, 10:30 p.m.) earned some rave reviews when it debuted last year, and some critics and fans expected it to appear in the best-comedy-series category, and Rae to be a shoo-in for best comedy actress. Emmy recognition wasn't there. A capsule summary would say the show is a portrait of a young black woman attempting to manoeuvre work, friends, lovers and day-to-day life in Los Angeles.

But the show's second season emphasizes how odd it is – tonally, it is bittersweet, but as comedy it is uniquely choreographed to bend from outlandish physical comedy to a melancholy amazement at the state of the world the main character inhabits.

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That world is distinctly L.A., but it is working-women L.A., not showbiz-and-sizzle L.A. It's about relationships, the workplace and fitting in. And, like Aziz Ansari's Master of None, it has a refreshing, unpredictable rhythm and feels humane, not concocted.

Most of the first season was about Issa Dee (Rae) negotiating her relationship with boyfriend Lawrence, while her old friend Daniel presented both temptation and a male ideal that couldn't be achieved. In this season, that's all over; Issa is single and not just nervously exploring the L.A. dating world, but also figuring out her priorities at work and her relationship with her close circle of friends. As in the first season, though, Issa occasionally looks at the camera and breaks into a rap. These raps vary from the hilarious to the profoundly angry.

What's striking is the sense that for all the aspirations the characters have, nobody gets to have perfection. One of Issa's friends, a tax lawyer, discovers by accident that male lawyers get paid more and white lawyers are always paid more than her. What to do? Negotiating a better situation is the engine that drives everything, whether it's love, work or family dynamics. The title of the show is apt – nobody in this often delicate comedy is truly secure. Life will always be rougher than fiction.

There is considerably more material about Issa's work. She works for a charity that helps underprivileged kids, which means she is usually found toiling in a high school trying to figure out how to help kids get through school and get a job. The subtle and sometimes startlingly unsubtle racism that's evident in the school system, in the blithe assumptions about black and Latino kids, is a recurring theme, yet some of the school scenes are hilarious.

It is a very funny show and treads easily through the core matter of being a black woman who is not entirely comfortable with much of black culture. Rae cuts like a knife through presumptions about what matters in black life – she is often as angry at her black friends and colleagues as she is at anything a subtly racist society throws at her. The show doesn't stoop to pathos, nor does it make its anger spurious.

One can see how the show makes some viewers and, possibly, Emmy voters, uncomfortable. It beggars description, offers no easy answers and, while it can be truly funny, it also feels subversive. Just watch it and see – this often mesmerizing exploration of human fragility, corrosive identity politics and love.

The Tea Explorer (CBC documentary channel on Sunday at 9 p.m.) is about what its main protagonist calls "Learning the leaf." That's Canadian Jeff Fuchs, who became an obsessive about tea after unexpectedly attending an all-night Chinese tea ceremony in Taiwan a few years ago. The experience awakened something powerful in him and he's been educating himself about tea ever since. "I thought what the hell is in this to create an alchemy of tremendous clarity, high-beyond-words feeling, a social warmth towards people. I had to get into that world, whatever it meant."

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He has no truck with coffee. "With coffee, there's no tale. It's a bean." The doc, which is visually sumptuous and rather like a dream-tale takes him to what he calls "tea's ground zero": China's Yunnan Province, the origin of all tea on Earth, apparently. From there, Fuchs sets out to travel the "Tea Horse Road" a 5,000-kilometre mule trail through the Himalayas. The program, made by Andrew Gregg, is an enchantingly successful hybrid of adventure tale and extravagant celebration of tea and you will never be blasé about tea again after seeing it.

Follow me on Twitter:

@MisterJohnDoyle

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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