Inside the ‘most genius show of 2020’
In my opinion, there was one clear work of art on television this year: Michaela Coel's I May Destroy You.
Ted Lasso may be a pitch perfect sitcom and the likes of Raised By Wolves, The Queen's Gambit, and The Baby-Sitters' Club all served breathtaking entertainment.
But I May Destroy You, streaming on Binge, was more than a great TV show. It was a balls-to-the-walls creative endeavour that tackled hot button topics with nuance, the subject of abuse with unblinking honesty, and served as a sensational showcase for star/writer/creator Michaela Coel.
While others have compared it to Fleabag, for me, the show that I May Destroy You comes closest to in spirit is the 2017 revival of Twin Peaks.
I May Destroy You is British writer and actress Coel's long-awaited follow up to her breakthrough show, Chewing Gum.
While that show was an awkward, but tender, comic look at an older virgin's nerves, I May Destroy You is about the destructive nature of sex.
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Coel mined her own traumatic experience of being sexually assaulted to build the world of Arabella, a talented writer whose sense of self comes unglued when a drunken evening out ends in tragedy.
She has blacked out a key part of her evening and all evidence points to a horrific assault in a bathroom stall.
As much as I May Destroy You is about Arabella tackling her trauma and confronting her assailant, it's also a peak into the mind of a wildly genius artist. Coel, herself.
Throughout I May Destroy You's twelve episode run, Coel deals with issues as diverse as an author's search for creative expression to the dangers of social media.
There are flashback episodes that show the knotty grey area of sexual assault allegations and how even victims can be villains in other people's stories.
As Arabella falls into a web of support - from survivor groups to doting detectives - her queer friend Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) encounters shaming, even from the police, when he tries to find justice for his assault.
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The series forces viewers to confront the shared responsibility we all have for creating a society that lives and breathes on parasitic relationships, whether they be sexual, racial, class-derived, or even friendships.
But I May Destroy You isn't just glorious because of its bold approach to sticky subjects. Narratively, it plays out like a möbius strip, looping Arabella back to where her pain all started, with a few confounding twists along the way.
The series finale of I May Destroy You gifts Arabella a number of dream scenarios for confronting her attacker.
Some are terribly gory. All end with the man in her room, either haunting her as a corpse under her bed or crying in her arms. None of these endings seem to stick, because none of them can offer complete catharsis.
Coel suggests that the only way to tackle trauma is to confront it.
Arabella does this only after months of dodging it, languishing in it, or seeing it as a hurdle to overcome.
Nothing else I've seen this year can compare to I MAY DESTROY YOU and tonight's finale is just so excellent pic.twitter.com/fZpQLOC8h1— Alison Willmore (@alisonwillmore) August 24, 2020
In fact, the show switches gears in its final moments, leaving a tense showdown between Arabella and her assailant in the realm of fiction.
I May Destroy You ends not with retribution, but metamorphosis. Arabella not only independently publishes the book she's been struggling with all series to critical acclaim, but her last go at imagining her showdown with the attacker ends with Arabella letting all the schemes go to embrace her kind roommate.
While nothing is on the level of David Lynch and Mark Frost's Twin Peaks: The Return, I May Destroy You was the first piece of television since that show's debut that seems to play as much with tone, pacing, narrative, and metaphor.
Twin Peaks is an auteur strutting through the debris of modern America, while I May Destroy You is another one crawling over the shattered glass of her own self-image.
Coel uses the medium of television rebelliously, but also sagely, pushing against cliches and blowing up the audiences preconceptions of the world episode-by-episode.
I May Destroy You wasn't just the best television of 2020; it went beyond TV.
This story originally appeared on Decider and has been reproduced here with permission
Originally published as Inside the 'most genius show of 2020'