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It's Official: I May Destroy You is 2020's Show of the Summer

How Michaela Coel's HBO series about surviving sexual assault conquered a most unusual summer season.
  • Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You. (BBC/HBO)
    Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You. (BBC/HBO)

    We've discussed TV shows that defined their summers before. Teen soaps like Beverly Hills, 90210 and The O.C. have historically loomed large, as have reality TV juggernauts (Survivor) and nostalgia-driven supernatural adventures (Stranger Things). Those shows occurred during regular summers. Summer 2020 is far from a regular summer. Production schedules have been interrupted and everybody's on edge — the show of the spring was Tiger King, for Pete's sake. Everything feels like it's on the brink. Which is why it's fitting that the show of this summer would be an intimate, deeply personal, harrowing-yet-funny star-making series from writer/creator/performer Michaela Coel. From the start, I May Destroy You loomed on HBO's summer schedule like a potential diamond in the rough, but few could have expected the kind of vociferous recognition it's received from critics and viewers alike. With the season finale coming up next week, it's time to tip our collective cap and call it: I May Destroy You is the show of the summer.

    For those familiar with Michaela Coel's previous work — specifically the British comedy series Chewing Gum, which streamed in the U.S. on Netflix — I May Destroy You presents itself as a dark turn. The premiere episode introduces us to Coel as Arabella, a popular-on-Twitter young writer working on her big-break assignment and struggling with the things you struggle with while trying to write on assignment and live up to some reputation as a Young Millennial Voice. She ends up either procrastinating or blowing off steam, heads out to a bar to meet her friends, has her drink spiked, and comes back around in the middle of working the next day, plagued by flashes of memory of a man raping her in a bathroom stall. The episode, and indeed the series, centers (although not exclusively) on Arabella trying to piece back together this nightmare of a sexual assault, trying to find a way to get right with herself, and struggling with the process of a police investigation.

    I May Destroy You is a survivor narrative mixed with a crime procedural mixed with a character drama, incorporating Bella's friends Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu). With this blend of genres keeping the viewer on their toes, the show delivers a searing portrayal of how Bella handles her world being so deeply shaken, with the story widening its scope with every episode to include detours, flashbacks, momentary shifts of focus to Terry and Kwame, all of which fill in the details of what becomes a deeply compelling narrative about rape culture.

    If that all doesn't make I May Destroy You sound like show-of-summer material, it's worth pointing out that it's not all dark. Coel has a uncanny ability to find cracks and corners in the story to place humor, not necessary as a leavening agent but at least as small moments of dark release. Elements of the story are bleak, but there are many more that are exhilarating, especially if you're the kind of TV viewer who finds the redemptive power of a deeply true friendship to be exhilarating.

    Still, even in a summer where the programming schedule was thrown completly out of whack, I May Destroy You remains an unlikely champ. A few elements came into play. For one thing, Michaela Coel emerged as a most fascinating creative persona during the press campaign for the show, delivering a blockbuster New York Magazine cover-story profile which delved into her personal history of sexual assault and most importantly her determination to make I May Destroy You her way, including how she turned down a lucrative offer from Netflix because they refused to let her retain even a small percentage of the copyright on the show.

    What's more, I May Destroy You touched a nerve among critics and viewers when it came to the depiction of Bella's sexual assault. Variety critic Caroline Framke's review talked plainly about how her experiences with having a drink dosed with a date rape drug found a welcome outlet in Coel's unblinking portrayal of same.

    If I May Destroy You were a movie, it would be the critically championed indie that ends up taking down the hollow blockbuster. It premiered too late in the year for Emmy consideration, but when it comes time to dole out accolades in 2021, it will be hard to deny the imprint this show made on TV. It's urgent, it heralds the breakthrough of a major talent, and in a time of uncertainty and fear, it's been something that could galvanize a growing corner of the TV-watching audience that yearns for something sharp and precise, with a mastery of genre and tone. I May Destroy You is the real deal.

    I May Destroy You airs its season finale on HBO Monday August 24th.

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    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: I May Destroy You, HBO, Michaela Coel