The writer and actor Michaela Coel must have been thrilled to discover that the BBC was willing to let her take her 12-part drama I May Destroy You (8 June, 10.45pm) in whatever direction she liked. (In a recent interview, she said that those who commissioned her removed her toddler reins, the better that – I paraphrase slightly – she might “shit and vomit” everywhere.)
There isn’t a writer alive who doesn’t secretly long to hear the words: “Do what the hell you like.” But artistic freedom is a mixed blessing – for the viewer, if not the creator. What she and the BBC seem to have forgotten is that originality and edginess are not the same thing. While one, done right, draws an audience in, the other, laid on too thick, may simply wear it out over time.
It’s possible, however, that I’m just suffering from overkill. I watched four episodes of I May Destroy You back-to-back, and this might be one of those series that should be taken in small doses. Episode three is nothing but sex and drugs, and while I’m all for the former, there’s nothing half so boring as watching people get caned on screen (notable exception: Benedict Cumberbatch in Patrick Melrose).
To be honest, I had every sympathy for the character who, tired of watching her pal whirl like a bad dervish on an Italian dance floor, slopes off back to her Airbnb to enjoy a cheeky threesome with two blokes she picks up en route. Viewed through the crack in her bedroom door, it did look to be an altogether more invigorating prospect than yet another round of coke and ket.
But I digress. I May Destroy You, which Coel has said is based on her own experience, is essentially about consent. Arabella (Coel) is a hot young east London writer who, not so long ago, somehow squeezed a book deal from a few tweets. When the series begins, she’s trying to complete the sequel to Chronicles of a Fed Up Millennial (yes, honestly), a project that’s constantly waylaid by her tendency to get distracted. Holed up in her agents’ office for a big overnighter on the first draft, she googles “how to write quickly”. The search engine having failed to come up with a nifty solution to the problem, Arabella then heads out to meet some mates. The evening that follows is heavy even by her standards, which is perhaps why she doesn’t at first notice that she has returned to her desk with a cut to her head and bruises on her thighs.
Though it’s almost impossible to discover what exactly happened – one of her friends is shifty when she calls to find out how the evening ended – Arabella is soon certain that her drink was spiked. Already, she’s having flashbacks; a man’s head; a lavatory cubicle; a banging sound.
What’s brilliant, though, is the way that Coel the writer never lets her depiction of what has happened descend into cliché. Arabella is traumatised; her concentration is even more shot now. But she’s no sobbing husk. She finds agency in her wit and determination, a powerful sense of perspective, and the certain knowledge that she’s not the only one – a point Coel makes rather drolly by depicting a whole row of women in gowns waiting for their swabs to be taken by police doctors (even more daringly, they look a bit bored). It’s only a shame that she then rather overcooks this by having Arabella’s friend, Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), who is gay, go through something similar himself only days later.
I May Destroy You is often exhilarating. Its particular freshness makes me feel, sometimes, as I did about Queer As Folk when it came out (more than 20 years ago now). It’s bracingly straightforward in the matter of human bodies: I can’t remember ever having watched a TV drama in which a character is seen attaching a sanitary towel to her knickers. And I love the comical, melodramatic way Arabella talks to her best mate, Terry (Weruche Opia). But my admiration thus far has not tipped over into warmth. As I watch, it’s almost as if I’m listening to someone else’s music, broadcast through their headphones as I sit by them on the Tube – I suppose because there is, ironically, something slightly tinny about its desperate desire to be real.
I May Destroy You
This article appears in the 10 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, A world in revolt