Meet the Hanslick Girls: Gwen, Eleanor and Dania. Created by writer Zach Barr, they are a trio of friends who are always out experiencing the best of entertainment. Be it plays, films, concerts, exhibits, or games, they’ve learned that the arts are best when experienced together. They may not have the same opinions, but their conversations tend to make for an entertaining read. Recently, a hit HBO series led to a discussion about its online source material. Let’s listen in on the conversation…
Dania awoke groggily, glancing up at the clock.
She groaned. She was working from home this afternoon, but had planned to start at 9am. Now, needing to get dressed, eat breakfast, focus herself…she mentally adjusted her schedule and drooped her way to the kitchen.
She was pulling toast out of the toaster when Gwen appeared.
“Tired?” Gwen was peppy, despite getting as much sleep.
“I shouldn’t have stayed up to binge with y’all,” Dania said. “I didn’t get to sleep until 1:30.”
“Sorry about that.”
“No, it’s me,” Dania admitted, buttering the toast. “I just need better impulse control, start thinking ahead.”
“Well,” Gwen smiled. “Then your staying up late was probably not helped by binge-watching a show where literally no one has impulse control.”
Dania shrugged. It was true: Insecure, created by and starring Issa Rae, was full of regrettable decisions and half-considered ideas. None on the parts of the creators – the show was impeccably paced and well-crafted. That same care was never taken by the characters, who seemed to stumble their awkward way through the world, navigating and re-defining the strange experience of being black in L.A. nowadays.
“I guess not,” Dania agreed.
“It’s very good, though,” Gwen said, as she began making breakfast.
“I should watch it for real, ‘stead of just watching over your shoulder,” Dania said.
She ate, and considered the show. Before long, she said to Gwen:
“Have you ever seen the webseries it’s based on?”
“What, the Awkward Black Girl one?”
“Yeah, Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl.”
Gwen looked out from the kitchen. “I have,” she said. “Not as big a fan as everyone else. I like Insecure more.”
“Well, duh,” Dania said. “It’s, like, a real show. With a budget. Awkward Black Girl is a webseries.”
“I understand,” Gwen said. “I would even say the original is pretty good. It’s just a different experience watching it now, since you can compare them.”
“Did you watch it before Insecure was out?”
“I had friends in high school that showed me senior year,” Gwen said. “It was popular for a little while, before that style of ‘I’m awkward and unsociable’ comedy was everywhere.”
“Before all the current T.V. comedies,” Dania said.
“Right,” Gwen said. “You could convincingly make the argument that the popularity of Awkward Black Girl may have led to that. It was a proof of concept – that’s my opinion right there. It’s a proof of concept for the Insecure series. Good enough to launch another show, and just good enough to stand on its own.”
“I’d say it’s better than good enough,” Dania added, pushing her breakfast plate away. “Have you watched it recently? The acting is actually really good, especially from the best friend, Cece? It’s a standard love triangle, but without the stuff that I usually hate about that. Because it’s just the three of them – aside from Nina in season one – the side stories are about things other than the relationship. It’s a little refreshing.”
“Maybe,” Gwen said.
“Besides,” Dania continued, “It’s just simpler. More awkward, not as polished as the HBO version.”
“I’m not sure it’s simpler,” Gwen said. “Many of the plot points in Awkward Black Girl don’t go anywhere.”
“The quiet character, for one.” Gwen could hear Eleanor’s door open, and the bathroom door close. “Too much time spent dealing with drama at the office rather than personal conflict.”
“There’s a lot of office in Insecure too. With her let’s-help-black-kids organization.”
“It’s not the same, though,” Gwen continued. “There, the conflict of what she’s doing at work ties into the themes of the show. The tensions of being black in Los Angeles. In the webseries, the place she works has nothing to do with being a person of color.”
“It kinda does,” Dania said. “Even if it’s colon cleanses, or whatever that company is, there’s still tensions with Nina and Fred, that awful white boss woman.”
“Boss Lady,” Gwen said. “She’s a one-woman mirror showing me all my privilege.”
“So yeah,” Dania said. “I think her job still mattered on Awkward Black Girl. She certainly spends a lot more time there than in Insecure – there are entire episodes at the office.”
“30-minutes versus 15-minutes,” Gwen mused. “The type of conflict you want to show changes. But I suppose you have a point.”
“Sure I do,” Dania said, standing. “And I liked quiet voice guy, he was funny.”
“But what’s the point?” Gwen said, as Dania returned to her room. “The joke is that he’s quiet, and then what?”
“Isn’t that enough?”
“Not if he’s going to be a recurring character!”
“Well, I thought he was funny. You can’t tell me I didn’t think he was funny.”
Gwen grumbled. Eleanor was exiting down the hall, coming to the kitchen.
As Eleanor poured cereal, Gwen called to Dania. “Initially, I thought I was having trouble hearing Quiet Guy because of the terrible audio mixing.”
“What does that mean?” came Dania’s voice.
“Audio mixing,” Gwen repeated. “You know how you can hear static during the show, or how it disappears when people stop talking?”
“Is this Insecure?” Eleanor asked.
“Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.”
“Mmh,” Eleanor squinted. “Yeah, the audio is pretty bad.”
“It’s a webseries,” Gwen said. “I give it a pass, it was 2011.”
“I know, but like…” Eleanor continued. “Other webseries existed then with better production values. It comes across as more like a home video than a webseries that’s somewhat well-respected.”
“Not a fan, then?”
“Nope. Never really have been.” Eleanor took her breakfast into the other room. “Even less so now that Insecure is out, basically being the better version of it.”
“Production values are certainly higher,” Gwen said. “I don’t know, though. I think when you watch Awkward Black Girl, you can see the genesis of Issa Rae’s other projects in it.”
“Probably,” Eleanor said. “But when I’m watching a webseries, I’m not looking for a ‘genesis.’ Not when other shows are, you know, finished.”
“Are you hating on Awkward Black Girl?” Dania asked, from the other room.
“Not hating,” Eleanor said. “I just always wondered why it got so popular, considering it’s kind of cluttered.”
“It’s mostly good,” Gwen defended.
“It spends an entire episode on turning the workplace into a sorority before abandoning that thread in the next episode.”
“Okay, but that’s funny,” Dania said, re-entering. “I love that episode. And the episode about writing jingles for the company? That’s amazing.”
“Not a fan of the jingles, I dislike Sister Mary too much.”
“How can you hate Sister Mary?” Dania asked. “She’s delightful!”
“She’s one joke!” Eleanor exclaimed. “It’s just ‘I’m religious, you’re all sinful,’ and that’s it.”
“Is not. Gwen, back me up.”
Gwen grimaced. “I…also don’t love Sister Mary.”
Dania rolled her eyes.
“It just feels amateurish,” Eleanor said. “Which, yes, I know, it was. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t still.”
“Pacing is always weird in the original series, I’ll admit,” Gwen said. “The comedic timing for the jokes, especially with voiceovers, is always a second or two off. One of the better decisions Insecure made was ditching the voiceover narration.”
“I don’t know, I thought it was nice,” Dania said. “It lets us get into her head when things are going wrong.”
“The phone conversations in Insecure do the same, though,” Gwen added.
“I think my major problem is just that – and I know you’re going to say that it’s the point, Gwen.” She shot a look to Gwen, who stepped back. “Maybe it’s intentional, but whatever. The problem with Awkward Black Girl is that it’s too awkward!”
Dania’s eyelids fell, judging.
“Sure, that’s the point,” Eleanor continued. “But I can’t get into a webseries that is so cringey in the way people talk that I have to look away from the screen every other minute. It does its job too well.”
“Well, the other option is Insecure,” Dania responded. “Where everything is awkward but also pretty, and well-shot, and not as pure as the webseries.”
“Well…” Gwen considered. “I can agree that the old series cringeworthier. The awkward moments are more obvious, more forward. There are more extreme situations – like the sorority episode ––”
“Those set up the characters for discomfort. But…”
“But?” Dania said, an eyebrow raising.
“…that’s not exactly great writing.”
“Ha!” Eleanor said. “See, Dania?”
“I don’t,” Dania said. “How does being funnier make it worse?”
“It’s like this,” Gwen explained. “Awkward Black Girl has good characters – I mean that – and the show puts them in awkward situations that let them play off each other. But in something like Insecure, the situations they’re in are, generally speaking, pretty normal. It’s the characters that are awkward. The normalcy of the situations makes the show more watchable, while also being funnier.”
Dania processed this.
“So what you’re saying is,” she finally concluded, “that Awkward Black Girl tries too hard?”
“A little. Common for early comedians to try to be funny, before it comes naturally.”
“Yeah, don’t think I hate Issa Rae,” Eleanor said. “Insecure and her other work, she’s very smart. But her very first project to make it big – eh, time has passed. She’s improved from then.”
“Maybe,” Dania said. She cleared her plates into the kitchen. “I still think both of them are funny. The new one might be better, like, technically, but I think Awkward Black Girl holds up.”
“Eh, whatever,” Eleanor said.
“I still enjoy it,” Gwen clarified. “It’s not perfect, but it’s a proof of concept.”
“And it’s funny,” Dania added.
“When it’s not awkward,” Eleanor said.
“It’s always awkward.”
“Oh, well then…” said Eleanor, with a grin.
Image Credit: Issa Rae Productions