The big hit of the summer, in the gloom of the pandemic, and coincidentally amid a global wave of inspiring Black Lives Matters protests, is a show about rape, consent and justice.
It is described by the BBC as a comedy-drama. Race, gender and class are central themes. Drugs and alcohol flow freely and social media acts as judge and jury on matters small and large.
Every episode is written to challenge and take you out of your comfort zone. Like your friends, all the characters you get to know are neither all good nor all bad. They make some good decisions and some real shit ones, some that leave you full of empathy and others that leave you quite unsettled.
I May Destroy You is powerful and compelling. It explores race, gender, sex, consent, and a generation’s obsession with social media in a way that hasn’t been done before in popular drama. It’s way ahead of Fleabag, though perhaps it’s not fair to compare the two.
The main thread of the story, and there are very many threads, is about about a rape that takes place after a drink spiked in a pub. The next 11 episodes are an exploration of dealing with the trauma, injustice, even revenge and a whole lot more.
Spiking drinks with “can’t remember” drugs has doubled in last three years though still only three out of every 200 rape allegations actually lead to prosecution and court.
I cannot think of any other TV series where I’ve felt the need to stop female acquaintances in the street, and entice female colleagues and sisters into discussion to ask their opinion on a show. Only one out of the four women I tempted into discussion on the street had actually watched any of the episodes, and she had decided to park it because it seemed a bit too bleak for lockdown.
And so I turned to the endless discussion on Twitter, in podcasts and in interviews and articles in print and online.
I, like millions of people (probably mostly women), have become obsessed with the show. It works on several levels. You find yourself smiling, laughing and sometimes within seconds of that wincing, gulping, cringing or crying.
Michaela Coel, the lead actor, the awe-inspiring writer, and co-director of the show, challenges stereotypes, expectations and assumptions. She has pulled together a world where young black women and a young black gay man take centre stage in powerful, funny, clever, insightful and sometimes crazy roles struggling to make sense of of their world. Much of the subject matter is bleak, but the characters are overall life-affirming, inspiring and full of hope.
Coel, who was raised on a council estate in East London by a single mum from Ghana, turned down a million dollars from Netflix in order to maintain artistic control over her work. She is clever, witty and wise. She might well be the cleverest, wittiest and wisest of her generation (I’d vote for her), but this could not explain why she was, in 2009, the first black woman in five years to get a place at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. That’s racism. It’s not stop and search, it’s not getting beat up because you’re black, but it is racism.
In a drama workshop at the Guildhall her cohort was asked to divide into two parts, one part whose families owned their homes and the other whose families did not. Michaela stood alone. She described her fellow students as being “middle-uppers” and, of course, white. She says this made her resilient and determined and argues “there’s blessings in struggle”. Indeed there are.
The central theme of sexual assault is drawn from her real life experience. Quite what is real and what is fictional in I May Destroy You is not clear and Coel is keen to keep it this way. She wanted us left feeling unsure, thinking about it, with nothing for certain.
She achieves that in spade loads. Most of all, she’s left me craving for her next piece of work.