I May Destroy You Breaks New Ground for A Network That Seemed to Have Forgotten How
The art of the dramedy has always played badly on HBO. Showtime has turned it into something of an art form in the early part of the decade, but HBO has never fared that well with it, particularly in the past year. Mrs. Fletcher worked a lot better as a comedy, while RUN never quite worked on any level. But in the past couple of weeks, we’ve gotten a look at a series that is completely different from anything HBO has tried, and indeed, something that very few services have tried, period.
I May Destroy You centers on Arabella, a black woman living in London working on stories from her opinions on the Internet. Very much a citizen of the world, we see in the opening minutes of the pilot driving away from a booty call she has in Italy that her publishers cover as ‘research’. Hopelessly behind on her latest book, she spends the night before a meeting with her editors getting drunk with some acquaintances: Simon and Kat, who are interesting in having a threesome. She takes a break from her work, she has a drink with them, they start partying, and then… something happens.
It’s not clear even to Arabella what has happened. She wakes up the next morning, she keeps having flashes of the night before, her phone has been smashed, there’s a bruise on her forehead, and she just can’t concentrate. And when she tries to call the people about what happened the night before, they’re very vague. But what she thinks has happened is some kind of trauma, almost certainly a sexual assault. And while she goes to the police and reports it, there’s a part of her — a really big one — that just wants to move on. While another part wants to know what happened.
I’m not going to lie to you; I May Destroy You is pretty bleak. But it’s not the kind of darkness we’ve come to expect from your typical pay cable series. This takes a piercing look into what it is like to be drugged and lose the ability to consent in a blunt and unsparing way. Those who get their usual kicks about seeing Olivia Benson deal with this kind of story on a weekly basis will be very uncomfortable here, maybe because there don’t seem to be any real answers. And most of that is due to the work of the lead actress-showrunner Michaela Coel. It takes the perspective of so many of the internet age, and looks at them with an unforgiving eye. Arabella doesn’t fit the definition of the rape victim the television viewer has come to know. She’s trying to get answer, mainly because she doesn’t have a clear perspective on what happened to her. But she’s not in a particular hurry to change her life… at least not yet. Later episodes will demonstrate that she will do just that.
There’s also the fact that almost the entire cast are African-Brits, but even in a world where race has become ultra important, this kind of sneaks up you because no one goes out of there way to talk about it the way they would occasionally on, say, Insecure. But Coel goes to a great deal of trouble to give all of her supporting characters detail. Arabella’s friend Terry is an actress still trying to make it; Terry is a black gay man, a whole world which rarely gets explored anywhere, and Simon and Kat just seem as lost as any other couple in a relationship.
As I said, I May Destroy You is not an easy series to watch. I can imagine most people will turn away from it just hearing the description, and I haven’t seen enough of it to know if there are rewards for staying the course or whether it’s a series that you admire more than enjoy. But I’m more than willing to give HBO and Coel a lot of points just for effort. It’s probably not going to be an example of the new HBO (my guess is they’re still focused on Game of Thrones spin-offs), but in terms of approach and execution, it really should be.
My score: 3.75 stars.