The 50 best TV shows of 2020, No 2: I Hate Suzie

Billie Piper was on searing form as a B-list celeb whose life is unravelling in this unflinchingly honest portrait of womanhood

There’s a scene in I Hate Suzie that is one of the best depictions of drug use I have ever seen on screen. Suzie Pickles (Billie Piper) – a former teen pop sensation who stars in a “Nazi zombies” series nobody really watches – ends up in a hotel room with her agent best friend, Naomi (Leila Farzad), and a sleazy older man.

There’s the farcical drug pick-up; the bonhomie of sharing cocaine with an amiable stranger; the quick reassessment of character (“Is this guy a bit of a dick?” Naomi mouths to Suzie); the regrettable sexual activity (“His crotch smelt like a bin!”); and the horrid descent into a depressive comedown. It’s the kind of dead-on verisimilitude that makes I Hate Suzie a triumph and one of the best shows of the year.

The premise is that Suzie becomes victim to a celebrity nude photo hack – not just a violation any of us can fall prey to in the internet era, but the revelation of an affair. We watch the psyche-cracking fallout. Each episode plays with tone and is based on one of the stages of grief. (The Fear episode, with its creaking staircases and tilting camerawork, flirts with the horror genre.)

The show is created by Piper and Lucy Prebble, a writer who can jump effortlessly from theatre (A Very Expensive Poison) to television (Succession), and it is clear the two are firm friends who volley dark jokes on WhatsApp. They have come up with a show that explores the relationships we form; the choices we make; the control we assert or accede to; and how our inner lives align – or fail to align – with our outer ones. One episode is entirely dedicated to an unsatisfying bout of masturbation. A number of TV networks wouldn’t touch it.

No character is entirely likable, because no human being is. Right before Suzie discovers she is among the victims of the hack, she smirks at the headline on her phone. Her husband, Cob (Daniel Ings), is a condescending nightmare who feeds off Suzie’s compliant nature and whose bulging eyes flash a constant threat of violence. And yet there are moments when he doesn’t seem that bad: when calling out people for behaviour even worse than his and when being a good father to their son, who is deaf. (Even that otherwise lovely son murders a rabbit.)

But the focus is women. Specifically women in their 30s, and how they navigate the world. Can women admit that sometimes their sexual desires contradict their politics? What’s the ratio of social conditioning to organic proclivity? How is it that so often women’s anger is deemed an aberration and men’s a marker of genius?

There’s plenty more explored: how it is to live in a world soaking in misogyny, from the insidious to the frightening. The conflict of a person transcending their working-class roots – who loves their family but can’t help noticing the flies near the buffet of their sister’s wedding.

And Suzie isn’t the only one going through an ordeal. There’s the brown-skinned Naomi casually asked at a party whether her parents wanted her to be a doctor. At one point, Suzie asks her son whether he would like to be special and stay in mainstream school, or go to a school for the deaf and fit in. “Both,” he replies. Pretty much everyone is a chaotic mess. But there are glimmers of hope. The generosity of a wife who has been wronged by Suzie but doesn’t know it. The kindness of a gay couple; an action of such subtle, unstudied compassion that it almost makes the heart burst. Every element of I Hate Suzie is close enough to touch. (There are some great industry in-jokes too: a pretentious director and ridiculous magazine shoot; a trailer smelling of a septic tank; the riffs on Piper’s life and career).

The acting, directing, music and costumes are all superb – but the writing stands out above all. When Naomi talks about the dangers of overdosing on sleeping pills and cites Elvis as a cautionary tale, Suzie says he died on the toilet. “But he didn’t die from being on the toilet did he? He didn’t die from toilet.” It’s the kind of brilliant line we have come to expect from Prebble, delivered with perfect timing by Fazard.

It’s these women who are the show’s centre. Suzie and Naomi. Prebble and Piper. All focused on the specific time in the lives of women when, though society sets them in amber – doting mother, careerist bitch – the reality is a multitude of underlying and competing identities. It’s just that in I Hate Suzie they’re not underlying but splashed across the tabloids.

Contributor

Hannah Jane Parkinson

The GuardianTramp

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