By Sarah Howes, Second Year, Film and Television
Michaela Coel, the BAFTA award-winning writer and star of popular comedy series Chewing Gum (2015-2017), makes a seismic return to the screen with the gripping new drama I May Destroy You (2020). The innovative show has quickly garnered enthusiastic attention and praise – particularly in recognition of its daring representation of important issues surrounding consent and sexual assault – and this enamoured reception is well-deserved; Coel has crafted a nuanced story about diverse, well-developed characters and a variety of pressing modern issues.
Coel stars as Arabella, a charismatic young writer living in London. After gaining some success and recognition writing about millennial life on Twitter, Arabella is working on a new book with an imminently approaching deadline. But, following a life-changing night out that she can’t remember the next day, she has to try to come to terms with the painful aftermath of the night’s traumatic events and their pervasive effects on her personal and professional life. Along her journey we also meet her loyal best friends, aspiring actress Terry (Weruche Opia) and Grindr-addicted fitness instructor Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), who try to form an effective support network for Arabella whilst also dealing with their own personal struggles.
I May Destroy You turns a sharp eye on the varied intricacies of modern relationships and sex, with a sense of perceptive humour, compelling honesty, and refreshing empathy. Without employing an overly didactic tone, the show confronts a number of hard-hitting and emotionally evocative topics. Rather than suffering from a sense of patronising victimisation or voyeuristic sensationalism, its sensitive subject matters are approached with admirable directness and understanding.
Coel has spoken out about how the series takes inspiration from her own personal experience of spiking and sexual assault, so it is perhaps particularly pertinent that the challenges of authorship and claiming control over your own authentic story and recovery is something which is tackled so discerningly in the show, with Arabella having to negotiate conflicts with her unsympathetic publishers and the pressure of her rapidly growing influence on social media (where self-care and recovery too often risks being co-opted and commercialised) whilst trying not to overlook her own personal needs.
Whilst the show certainly explores some serious themes, I May Destroy You should also be appreciated for its liveliness and humour; with Coel being perhaps best known for the exuberant comedy of Chewing Gum, fans will not be surprised that her latest work has many memorably funny moments. It is also aesthetically captivating, especially in the vibrant club scenes, with pulsating blue and purple lights, and one episode’s stunning views of the Italian coastline. On the other hand, the haunting images of Arabella’s flashbacks are effectively disturbing, and poignantly express her initial feelings of confusion and fear.
The show’s pace can be slightly slow at times, and the flashback episodes which suddenly divert from the main plot are a little jarring. Perhaps, this is the point Coel is trying to get across. However, the unpredictability of the show’s darting focus adds to its uniqueness and broad scope.
I May Destroy You is an immensely involving drama with a bold, uncompromising voice that raises important questions about accountability, self-care and acceptance. All twelve episodes are now available to stream on BBC iPlayer.
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