We love TV: I May Destroy You | Small Screen | Chicago Reader

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We love TV: I May Destroy You

Two television addicts chat about the HBO dramedy.

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Michaela Coel's second outing as a show creator and star is even better than her first. - HBO
  • HBO
  • Michaela Coel's second outing as a show creator and star is even better than her first.

The pandemic has kept many of us from leaving the house, but honestly, why would you want to? There is too much TV to watch to go outside. Outside doesn’t have Hulu or Netflix or HBO Max. To encourage you to stay home and stay safe, comedian/writer Rima Parikh and myself (two people who watched just as much TV in the before times) will be diving deep into the shows we’re loving or lovingly hate-watching, social-distance-style, over Google chat.

[Content warning: This show and the discussion that follows deals with sexual assault.]

Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You may not be bingeable for everyone. The comedy drama follows Arabella (Coel), a social media-famous millennial writer, who on a night out has her drink spiked and is sexually assaulted. After the assault, Arabella works to put together the pieces of the foggy night and rebuild and recover with her lifelong friends Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) and Terry (Weruche Opia) by her side—both of them also trying to reckon with their own views of where the line is and when it has been crossed. It’s a nuanced and often funny portrayal of a serious, emotional issue, one that is absolutely worth watching.

Brianna Wellen: If you're not familiar with what this show is about, the end of that first episode could be a major twist. Rima, did you go in cold? What were your expectations for the series?

Rima Parikh: I went in a little cold. I remember the glossy shots from the trailer and random marketing on social media, and knew vaguely that it would be about sexual assault, but I didn't fully know what the show would be about until I started it. What about you?

BW: Very much the same. I knew it was about sexual assault in some way, and that it had a gorgeous color story, but with all the imagery of the computer and typing in tandem with the title I somehow concocted that it would be about computer hacking and revenge, something a little more fantastical. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it was actually extremely grounded in reality. I think that's what is most remarkable about the show: the nuances that make every situation feel so real in a way that I've never seen on TV before.

RP: Yeah. I do appreciate how grounded in reality it is, and how it encapsulates a lot of messiness.

BW: We love messiness!

RP: One thing I've been thinking about a lot with the show is whether people watching it feel like it's trying to be prescriptive in terms of how to handle situations—and I don't think it is—or whether it's supposed to make us engage with the messiness. Or, rather, I think we are supposed to do the latter, but I feel sometimes caught up in the former. Does this make sense?

BW: This makes complete sense. It shows that there's not one right way to deal with the experience of sexual assault, and that all those different ways can be rolled into one person. One single person who has gone through that experience can do the quote-unquote right thing of reporting the crime, seeking help, joining support groups, speaking out for themselves and others while still also ignoring the problem, engaging in harmful behavior, distancing and hurting loved ones, ignoring responsibility. Because of that range and depth I feel the show isn't so much trying to be prescriptive as it is relatable.

RP: It definitely makes you reckon with your own experiences too in a way that a show hasn't for me before. And that's good, but it's also stressful—like I was watching it week by week at first, and then when I finished episode five, I just stopped for a while. And then binged the rest. I feel like the experience of watching it week by week was easier to take in than watching a few episodes at once, but I've also heard friends say the opposite was easier.

BW: That's interesting. My initial instinct was to caution our readers to take it one episode at a time, and have time to sit with it before moving onto the next, but I can see where sitting with it too long without getting the resolution from the next episode would also be difficult. I felt especially floored by episode six, which flashed back to Arabella and her friend/classmate Theo’s experience with exploitation and emotional abuse in high school. I needed to take some time away to reconcile with how early these assaults/forms of abuse enter our consciousness and how early we may be conditioned to ignore it.

RP: Yeah that's so real. I think I'm still sitting with that episode.

BW: Even with all the emotionally tolling thoughts we're left with, Michaela Coel somehow still manages to make the series funny! There were so many laugh out loud moments for me. Again, it's something I have never seen before!

RP: Yes! In some ways, it's like, how did she make this show and also make Chewing Gum? And in other ways, it's like, OK yes, she definitely made this show and made Chewing Gum.

BW: ABSOLUTELY. There were a few moments that reflected the work in Chewing Gum (I also liked the subtle meta reference in episode one to the struggles of your second creative outing). And on that point, it's so impressive that her second outing was, dare I say, flawless.

RP: OK, so I feel like I have to be a buzzkill and mention something that's been on my mind while I've been watching the second part of the series, and that's her comments to The Economist where she said something about "taking responsibility as a way to reclaim power" and the blowback that got for sounding like she was victim blaming (even though she claims that it wasn't victim blaming). And it makes me think about how difficult it must be to process a sexual assault so publicly. Like I was really disappointed by her saying that, but I also can understand where it came from. And I think that contributes to the messiness, especially when we know that the onscreen is influenced by real life.

BW: That was very interesting as portrayed in the series when she goes so public on social media, being stopped in the street because people recognize her for her comments on sexual assault, and how that can cause you to further spiral. I do think it's important to show victims of assault as multifaceted, and not always perfect as a way of broadening who we see as a victim. Again, that makes me reflect on Theo's story, who was always known as a bad kid, or, yes, Arabella (and Coel) as someone who says or does the wrong thing—it doesn't make someone any more or less of a victim if they are a "good" or "bad." Even if someone is victim blaming, you can't discount their experience.

RP: Yes! I agree. Going into the second half of the series, after seeing people on social media be like "this show is bad for survivors," I was a little wary. But I think it made me want to look at it in a different way–like instead of being like, “OK, here is a perfect visualization of the aftermath of a sexual assault,” I think it was more about engaging with what was presented (and acknowledging the messiness even further) to be like, “why is she showing this in this way? What's going on in her head? What do we take away from this that's good, and what do we take away from it that's maybe not so good?” I think it adds a further complication that maybe even Coel didn't intend or anticipate, but that's not a bad thing.

I do get the concern that it could be bad for survivors who are maybe using the show as a way to figure out what they want to do in their own lives, or that it could be harmful in some other way, and I don't have an answer to that. But I do feel like sometimes when we get caught up in the politics of representation (i.e. "I've never seen something like this on TV before") the conversation sometimes turns into "this representation is bad and we should not even look at it" rather than, “OK, how do we engage with what we have?”

BW: Yes, exactly. For me, it felt comforting to see someone not really know what to do. And maybe it's dangerous to show someone haphazardly throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks and maybe landing on a harmful representation, but to your original point, it's not meant to be prescriptive. It to me is much more comforting than seeing someone trying to wrap up their assault with a nice little bow or completely spiral as a representation of what not to do. And if the "controversy" surrounding the shows is encouraging others to share their stories, then I think that's a sign of a well-made piece of art. And any issues with representation aside, this is ART. From the way it looks, the music, the performances by everyone involved, this show is high art.

RP: Also everyone looks hot and I think that's important. At the end of the day, I am still a dumb bitch who watches TV for hot people.

BW: Everyone manages to look hot but still normal?! Like these are hot people we would hang out with.

RP: Yes! These hot people would invite me to a party! They would NOT push me into a bathroom in the fifth grade! S/o to my elementary school bully. She did it because she was HOT and I UNDERSTAND NOW.

BW: It really is the salve of the show that makes it bingeable, everyone is great to look at, their clothes, hair, makeup, faces, the hot, colorful glow that everyone bathes in.

RP: It is so beautiful to watch! It counteracts the instinct to dig my nails into my skin, at least somewhat.

BW: There is likely a deep meaning to the color story of each episode, but I just like things that look pretty and didn't think too much about it. Art students, sound off in the comments!

RP: HA.

BW: So we still have yet to see the finale!

RP: I'm nervous!

BW: And that last episode ended on a doozy. What are your hopes for Arabella and her friends? And how are you gearing up for what social media will have to say about how everything is handled?

RP: I don't know, honestly. I think I want things to be wrapped up with a bow, and I think that makes me a huge baby. What about you?

BW: It certainly feels like we might be heading toward that and boy would that feel nice! But I also don't think that's going to happen!

RP: It would be too easy.

BW: One thing I have really appreciated is how unpredictable this show has been every step of the way, so I'm ready for anything, and that is STRESSFUL.

RP: Yes! It's very skillful in that way and I also kind of hate it! But in a good way?

BW: It's the messiness! The chaos! We love it but we need it to just calm down already.

RP: Yes.

BW: I just looked and it has yet to be approved for a season two so this may be the END end.

RP: Oh wow. Well unless HBO wants to embarrass themselves . . . I feel like we should get a season two.

BW: DON'T EMBARRASS YOURSELF, HBO! You're on a roll!   v

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