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21 February 2022

BBC One’s Chloe is the first TV drama to convincingly explore the ills of social media

The Crown's Erin Doherty is amazing in this explosive series.

By Rachel Cooke

I started watching Alice Seabright’s psychological thriller Chloe for only one reason: it stars Erin Doherty, whose star turn as Princess Anne in The Crown was so very knowing and witty. But pretty soon I was stuck to it like glue. If you haven’t seen it yet – it’s all on iPlayer, waiting to be unwrapped like some crazy present – let me just say that I think this may be the first time social media and its attendant ills have been fully and convincingly incorporated into a TV drama, and that Doherty is indeed the real thing. Here is an actor who can transform her entire appearance with only the smallest change to her posture. However, I must also add a gentle health warning: Chloe comes with a wardrobe that may cause some viewers (like, er, me) to indulge in a particularly frenzied bout of internet window shopping.

Becky Green (Doherty) has a boring, difficult life. Her mother, with whom she lives, has early onset dementia, and her job as a temp is taking her precisely nowhere. She’s also broke. No wonder, then, that she’s apt to live vicariously through the Instagrammed life of a girl she knew at school, Chloe (Poppy Gilbert). Chloe and her filthy rich husband Elliot (Billy Howle) have a huge, minimalist home and a close crowd of moderately unpleasant “influencer” friends – among them Livia (Pippa Bennett-Warner), a PR, and Richard (Jack Farthing), a DJ. They all hang out at a place that vaguely resembles the members’ club Babington House (only it’s in Bristol), where they do yoga, drink Sauvignon, and have “openings” and “launches”. (Livia’s husband Phil is an artist; Elliot is about to announce he’s standing for parliament.) What’s not to envy, eh?

But – surprise! – all is not what it seems. One morning, as she’s manically chewing her breakfast cereal, Becky discovers that Chloe has died, which means there is now no more scrolling to be done… Or does it? Hunched over her phone, she coolly clicks away until, as if a key has turned in a locked door, she finds a way into Chloe’s circle. Having given herself a new name (“Hi, I’m Sasha”), a new voice (bye bye Bristolian accent), a new career (naturally, she’s a gallerist) and a new look (buying her frocks on the tick, she rips off their labels in the manner of a lion tearing off the head of a wildebeest), pretty soon, she practically is Chloe. How long can she keep up the act? What will Elliot and his ghastly pals do if the mask slips? Or are they wearing masks, too? Believe me, you will be all questions and clammy anxiety right until the very end.

I’ve loved imposter dramas since childhood, when I first read Josephine Tey’s excellent mystery Brat Farrar, and part of the enjoyment Chloe has given me stems from this. Every scene has the potential to explode, the bomb of discovery ticking away beneath it. But there are other things going on, too. Social class is in play – the notion of keeping up appearances has a double meaning here – and so are the addictive properties of Instagram and the rest; the way they must be consumed like food (Becky inevitably scrolls as she eats, devouring her screen as well as her breakfast). Seabright’s script captures, without ever labouring the point, the sadomasochism involved in social media: its lies and blandishments are so punishing and painful, and yet Becky cannot tear herself away.

The plot may not, ultimately, hang together, and its minor characters, with their four-wheel drives and their rustled-up luncheon frittatas are on the flimsy/ preposterous side. But who cares? Doherty is amazing, flipping imperceptibly (and yet, astonishingly) between Becky and Sasha, spouting her character’s lies in such a way that they seem at once incontestable (to Sasha’s friends) and supremely shoddy (to us).

And what about her gear, eh? On Twitter – OK, I looked! – people were calling her outlandish dresses revolting. But I liked them, especially the sparkly, stiff one her mother denounced as “fancy dress”. Somehow, they catch something, these clothes: her desire, perhaps. Like her, they strive for effect. Sasha may be a fiction, a half-formed thing, but she sets something free in Becky, nevertheless. Here is a girl who can pull off a long, lavender, one-sleeved frock even when she’s stumbling across a seaside caravan park.

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This article appears in the 23 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Darkness Falls