HBO's sharpest comedy continues to crackle, despite a slow-burn start.

Insecure confirms its true love story in the third-season premiere when Issa picks up best friend Molly from the airport, an act reserved only for the faithfully dedicated. Our adorkable heroine (Issa Rae) pulls up at LAX arrivals and beach-fresh bestie (Yvonne Orji) hops into the car, immediately pulling a souvenir gift from her bag — a jar of sand. "It reminded me of your dry-ass pussy," she chirps.

You know what they say: Come for the one-liners, stay for the pathos. Despite its status as one of TV's sharpest, funniest and raciest comedies, HBO's Insecure has a pitch-dark existential streak running right through its heart. Behind the eyes of every major character are the questions, "How did I even get here? And what am I willing to do to blow up my life?"

Season three sheds the series' coiled mea culpas to focus on the psychological impotence of hitting your 30s without a game plan. In last season's finale, Issa finally finds closure with Lawrence, the ex she cheated on, and responds to a rent hike by (platonically) moving in with Daniel (Y'lan Noel), the other man. Perpetually unsatisfied Molly, who fought to shine at her Old White Boys Club law firm, takes a job offer with a predominantly black firm. Lawrence and his singed ego fade into the ether. It's time to start over.

By now, our leads are officially tired of doggie paddling their way through life. For pin-pricker Molly, who declares early on that she's "on some know-better, do-better shit," the grass could always be greener: She finds herself missing aspects of her old job and struggling to set boundaries with pushy f-buddy Dro (Sarunas J. Jackson). Self-flagellating Issa is at an emotional/financial crossroads and neither work nor home can be a refuge from the other. She continues to flail at white-savior nonprofit We Got Y'all while navigating a gossamer-thin balance beam with ex-lover Daniel. ("You concubining?" asks her brassy friend Kelli, played by acid-tongued Natasha Rothwell. Not exactly. It doesn't even occur to Issa to clean the apartment as a thank-you for crashing on the dude's couch.) Also, her side hustle as a rideshare driver isn't as rewarding as she needs it to be. (Though it's comedy gold for us, especially in the third act of the season opener, when she and Molly escort a series of increasingly… interesting young strangers across L.A. on a Saturday night. "Party Lyft!")

Still, Insecure is more subdued than usual — even somber — in the first few episodes of the season. "Every time I claim a 'new me' I feel like I just end up in old shit," she whines to Molly. We also probably wade a little too long in the boggy professional frustrations of rising hip-hop producer Daniel, a languorous figure whom Issa just can't quit for some reason. Why spend so much screen time on his false bravado when we could bask in the mouthy glory that is Rothwell? (I'm just waiting for social media's infamous Lawrence stans to flip at his complete absence here, both within the narrative and Issa's psyche. #LawrenceHive)

Despite its slow-burn start, Insecure sparkles in its smaller moments — Issa's signature free-styling as her looking-glass persona, "Mirror Bitch"; her buoyant chemistry with a gray-eyed, brown-bearded new love interest; and just pretty much any crackling scene between her and Molly. (Even the Easter eggs still sizzle: This season the writers replaced slavery romance/Scandal parody Due North with an ersatz reboot of a '90s sitcom called Kevin. "Little Chris, 45 years old, still popping out of cabinets," Issa sighs.) The soundtrack also continues to eviscerate — what other show on television remains this committed to exposing so many under-the-radar women hip-hop artists?

Emmy nominee Rae is a deft comedian, the kind of infectiously charming performer that can deliver more with a shift in her countenance than the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel could share in a torrent of verbal gymnastics. And effervescent Orji persists as a master of comedic timing. Luckily for us, the solemnity of the season dissipates by episode four, when Issa solidifies some life-altering decisions; they had to break her down to build her up again.
Women-led television frequently relies on what I've dubbed the "Theory of the Four": Four female archetypes that serve to elucidate modern sexual politics. The Raconteur ends up processing the actions of the group into a witty retrospective, while smart/cynical The Brain remains the most vulnerable to humiliation. The naivete and traditionalist nature of The Innocent — the conscience of the group — typically clashes with human id The Wild Child, a creature highly motivated by sensual pleasure. This structure supports everything from The Golden Girls to, well, Girls.

Insecure works best when it homes in on this dynamic. The show doesn't need to be the second coming of Sex and the City, but its most carbonated moments are when Issa and Molly spar with acerbic hedonist Kelli, one of TV's few zaftig sexual goddesses, and bourgie blonde arriviste Tiffany (Amanda Seales), for whom the term "conspicuous consumption" was clearly invented. "So y'all just gonna Greek chorus on a bitch?" Issa squeals at dinner after getting the business from her three know-it-all friends. I hope so, girl. I live for it.

Cast: Issa Rae, Yvonne Orji, Y'lan Noel, Lisa Joyce, Natasha Rothwell, Amanda Seales
Executive producers: Issa Rae, Prentice Penny
Premieres: Sunday, 10:30 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)