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TV review: I May Destroy You

This stunning drama has rewritten the rules, says Linda Marric

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Earlier this month, it was revealed that Michaela Coel, the actor and creator of the new drama I May Destroy You had rejected $1 million offered by Netflix for the series. Although Netflix had bankrolled her earlier project Chewing Gum, Coel made the decision to go with the BBC instead after being asked by Netflix to hand over full rights to the show she had spent the last 3 years of her life working on.

For those familiar with Coel, the Netflix episode won’t come too much as a surprise because anyone who has heard her speak so passionately about her craft will know that Coel is no conventional artist. In fact, one of the first times I ever came across her was in an interview she did for the Adam Buxton podcast. In it, Coel came across as someone very much in charge of her own destiny.  What really struck me the most about her was how open she had been about her own private life and how little she cared about conventions, social or otherwise. It is this freedom of spirit that radiates throughout I May Destroy You, a series which has rewritten all the rules about drama and did it in style.

In the 12 part series, Coel stars as Arabella, an up-and-coming writer from East London struggling to finish a first draft after receiving a hefty advance from a publisher. Returning from a short break in Italy,  Arabella is soon summoned by her literary agents and told in no uncertain terms that she must pull an all-nighter if she is to meet her deadline.

Despite her best intentions, Arabella is soon lured into a drunken night out by her friend Simon (Aml Ameen). The next morning, having somehow written just enough to hand in, Arabella realises that she has no recollection of how she got back to the office. Her phone screen is smashed and she has a mysterious cut on her forehead. Later that day, she and best friend Terry (an impressive Weruche Opia) begin to put all the pieces together and finally come to the conclusion that Arabella had her drink spiked, but it soon transpires that’s not all that happened that night.

Over the 12 half hour episodes, Coel broaches a number of themes relating to consent, sexual attitudes and race in one of the best TV series of the year. Although at times slightly uneven in the way its narrative flows I May Destroy You is clearly deliberately disjointed and that’s the reason why it works. Coel uses her own experiences of abuse, painful childhood memories and heartbreak to tell a story that is both shocking and familiar to many women and some men.

What I loved most about the series beyond its courage of broaching a number of issues is the way in which Coel has manages to make it all feel so very familiar. The way in which we deal with trauma can tell a lot about each and everyone of us, and Coel knows this more than anyone. She is able to depict it all with astonishing precision.

The subject of consent and the supposed blurred lines around it is broached with a huge amount of maturity.  A sub-plot involving Arabella’s gay and admittedly promiscuous friend Kwame (a fantastic turn by Paapa Essiedu) opens up a whole new discussion about  rape.

Arabella’s interactions with her friends and the way in which the city plays a part in all their lives is genuinely one of the most beautiful and enlightening things anyone is likely to see all year. This series is as much about London as it is about a group of young people trying to navigate life and its harsh realities.

I May Destroy You Will Stick with you long after you’ve binged watched each episode, and, trust me, you will want to binge watch. Coel is  one of the smartest people working in film and television at the moment and I May Destroy You is just the tip of the iceberg of what she can do.

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