Michaela Coel came roaring out of the gate with her show Chewing Gum a few years back, but that show had nothing like the impact of I May Destroy You (HBO), which is almost revolutionary television. Using the 12 episode half hour format, it uses an ensemble of (mainly) Black millennial Londoners to ruthlessly examine sexual assault and the parameters of consent. It’s also, essentially, a comedy.
I wonder what Norman Lear, who famously pushed sitcom boundaries with his shows like All In The Family, would make of it. Well, I know. He’d love it. Humour is a powerful weapon, and Coel absolutely weaponises it here, slashing it like a blade against her gallery of rapists, predators and slime-balls.
Coel plays Arabella, a tweeter turned blogger turned actual about-to-be-published author, who goes for a big night out in London, wakes up with blackouts, and realises she was probably assaulted. Meanwhile, her posse of friends encounter similar issues. That conceit may sound a little engineered, but Coel isn’t messing around. She’s got an axe to grind and her plot mechanics are in service to that. It works. This is confident, compelling stuff, and if some of the plot developments seem contrived, perhaps contrivance is the key. She’s got an issue – and issues with the issue – and we’re here to hash it out. This is a conversation-starter, and it’s a big conversation.
Not that it’s a one-issue show. Over the course of the season, Coel piles on the concerns; two-thirds of the way through, Arabella takes a heel turn, quite shockingly, as she becomes, embraces being, and is made awful by becoming and being a social-media star. All these characters live their lives on their phones, but there seems to be a line, and Arabella crosses it, at least for an episode. Others of the close ensemble deal with sex addiction, urban loneliness and, ultimately, all manner of issues surrounding consent.
Coel also posits some provocative ideas around race, identity and politics that were new, and fascinating, to me. For instance: that among at least a significant segment of young / millennial Black Britons of African descent, climate change is not seen as a given but as a tool of oppression wielded by white people. Arabella buys into this argument and acts on it, perhaps implying that Coel, too, is similarly inclined. Less revelatory to me, but intriguing none the less, was the clear implication, told over a three-episode arc, that among young Black women, loyalty is to Blackness first, womanhood second, or, to put it another way, a Black man is to be believed over a white woman. Thoughtful stuff for people like me, and for anyone.
It’s the TV event of the year, no doubt. It’s angry, vibrant, exhilarating, surprising and funny. It’s not “perfect” – one of the supporting players, whose character is in three episodes, gives a performance so out-of-sync with the rest of the show that it should have been cut, and a late development in the arc of Arabella’s best friend Terry is just too contrived, but the production’s rough edges suit its definite edge, and also, in the end, its narrative raison d’être. It’s a story coming to Arabella and Coel, not easily, but with righteous passion and undeniable integrity, in blood, sweat and tears.