Michaela Coel’s series is a game-changer
There’s a lot to figure out in I May Destroy You. For the characters, for the audience, and for writer/co-director and star Michaela Coel as she spins the skeins of her deeply personal 12x30-minute hybrid series. Viewers of Britain’s staidly conventional BBC1 channel have certainly never seen anything like this before, not even in the 10.45pm slot. A drama/comedy which springs from Coel’s own traumatic rape, this has the sense of an explosive, boundary-shifting, era-defining Sex In The City, Girls or Fleabag (it is also part-backed by HBO) but with its almost all-black cast and deft command of huge tonal switches, it’s something entirely new and bracing as well. Coel is, quite simply, a formidable talent, in front of and behind the camera.
I May Destroy You needed a physical intimacy co-ordinator, and, one only hopes, an emotional support system for Coel, who bares her very soul here.
I May Destroy You is bound tightly to both Coel’s violent experience and her own professional life, but widens further to embrace a generation of urban sophisticates who are experimenting with boundaries and pushing their limits - hard. Her lauded TV series Chewing Gum, which ran for two seasons between 2015 and 2017, also mixed up the personal and the professional and there are some similar themes at play in I May Destroy You. It’s connected to Chewing Gum because Episode 1 is a mirror of what happened to Coel during the making of that show, when she pulled an overnighter in the office on a script and left alone to go out for a drink with a friend. That drink was spiked.
To clarify: Coel doesn’t show the rape – she’s looking for more than one simple brutal shock. She wants us to know it from the inside. She dances around it, ducks back in time – an entire episode takes place in Italy – and on to her friends, one of whom, Kwame, is graphically raped by his Grindr date while another, T, shocks herself with a threesome. Coel picks up her own pieces onscreen as she did in real life, stitching the night together and firing off a few jokes, sardonic one-liners, and direct hits on racial and sexual politics and the publishing industry as she tries to dodge the obstacles in her path and inside her own head. (One taboo she breaks, involving sex and a Tampax, has been a long time coming.)
Like Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Coel has written, executive produced, co-directs and stars as the lead in all 12 episodes which will not be available in box set as the mystery unfolds (not all have been made available for review). Coel spoke about her experience at an Edinburgh TV lecture two years ago. We know it happened. Watching it reveal itself to her screen alter-ego Arabella is something entirely different, though. This is innately terrifying material, but it’s also funny and human and, unlike Arabella at times, wise. (She’s not particularly good at resisting temptation.) I May Destroy You needed a physical intimacy co-ordinator, and, one only hopes, an emotional support system for Coel, who bares her very soul here.
Like Coel, Arabella works in media and became an overnight sensation for her first artistic effort - a book (compiled via Twitter status updates) called ‘Chronicles Of A Fed-Up Milennial’. People, mostly black women, stop her in the street, quoting lines back at her, and she’s always happy to oblige with a selfie. Arabella is finding her way into her second novel, is a bit on-the-fly, but she’s very cool, with her extraordinary, expressive face, ever-changing hair colour, and slightly ramshackle life. Someone describes her as “a bit lost”, but she doesn’t come across that way, at least initially. Perhaps she’s having too much fun, but where’s the harm in that?
Dark forces are at play, however, in Arabella’s life. What is her City mate Simon (Aml Ameen) up to, with his coke and girlfriend/mistress and “visiting cousin” from America? T, or Terri (Weruche Obia) is Bella’s best friend and confidante, but she’s struggling too. Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) is a proud, out brother, but he’s taking a lot of risk in his sex life. Issues of consent swirl around all their behaviours, separately and together. A drug-fuelled trip to Italy demonstrates that Bella may have a problem, and that her reluctant drug-dealer boyfriend Biagio (Marouane Zotti) is not the bad guy he originally appears to be.
Smartly, swifly, and without lingering rancour, Coel picks apart the media industry, with its clueless, well-intentioned closed-ranks of posh white privilege. She darts at “what’s your background?” racial clumsiness, Oxbridge snobbery, online-versus-print pecking order, and the in-your-face sexism faced by a smart, beautiful black woman who wants to be – should be - in control even though the world may be colluding against her.
Bella can’t sleep with flashbacks and anxiety. She mutters a mantra to herself that people are starving, that there’s a war in Syria, so she can see what she thinks is a bigger, more important picture, than herself. A therapist suggests she does some handicrafts, some drawing, to take her mind off things. When Arabella dashes to her family home and her old bedroom to find a childhood colouring-in book, it’s a sequence that should break your heart, if it hasn’t already arrested from the force of Coel’s vulnerability and hurt.
Following in the glitzier footsteps as Gangs Of London - they share an actor in Essiediu - I May Destroy You restlessly prowls around central London’s postcodes, making the city a player in Arabella’s drama, visually empasising the undercurrents which pull, push, attract and distract her.
I May Destroy You will debut on Sunday 7 June on HBO (US), and on Monday 8th June on BBC One and BBC iPlayer at 10:45pm. The second episode will air on Tuesday 9th June at 10.45pm. Episodes will then air on Mondays and Tuesdays for the remainder of the series.
Production company: Various Artists Limited, Falkna, BBC Studios
Writer, executive producer, co-director (episodes 4-12): Michaela Coel
Producer: Simon Meyer
Executive producers: Phil Clarke, Roberto Troni, Sam Miller (also director, episodes 1-3, co-director, episodes 4-12)
Cast: Michaela Coel, Weruche Obia, Paapa Essiedu, Aml Ameen, Harriet Webb, Marouane Zotti