I May Destroy You review – could this be the best drama of the year?

Michaela Coel’s new series is an extraordinary, breathtaking exploration of consent, race and millennial life that works on every level

In light of current events I feel the need to make a small point before reviewing the new drama written by, starring and in part directed by Michaela Coel, who is a black woman, born in London to Ghanaian parents. Specifically, I mean the killing of a black man, George Floyd, at the hands of police, and the consequent mass protests against the individual and systemic racism that enabled his and many more similar deaths across the world.

This is going to be a rave review, because I May Destroy You (BBC One) is an astonishing, beautiful, thrilling series – a sexual-consent drama if you want the one-line pitch, but so, so much more than that. It works on every level and succeeds by any metric you care to throw at it. As such there will be people who will insist that my (and implicitly any other) praise for it is a result of the current febrile atmosphere. 

But they are racist and wrong. Up here, at the top of the piece, is my best chance of countering the pollution they will introduce to what should be an unadulterated paean of praise to the superlatively talented Coel’s creation. This should, and I hope will, be a springboard to even greater artistic freedom and power in the industry for her.

So. That’s my piece said. Now to I May Destroy You.

Coel plays Arabella, the author of a bestseller, Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial, based on her popular Twitter account, and now struggling to finish the first draft of her follow-up book on time. Halfway through her final night of grace allowed by her publisher, she goes out for a break that turns into a night out. The early morning finds her back in front of her laptop with little memory of how she got there except for a vision of a man looming over her in a toilet as a hazily remembered sexual assault takes place. She realises her drink has been spiked. The detached “Huh” she gives to this revelation encapsulates in a syllable the drama’s unique tone and approach – always about 30 degrees off where you were expecting it to come from.

It sums up the contemporary world and sexual landscape Arabella and her friends (aspiring actress Terry and aerobics instructor and heavy Grindr user Kwame, played by Weruche Opia and Paapa Essiedu respectively) live in – the soft contours and shifting boundaries of which they are perpetually navigating in their early 30s. There are no absolutes, no imperatives. There’s an awful lot of relativism about. Room for interpretation. When everything is malleable, where can violation occur? Memory, feelings, are not enough. You have to take a moment.

Arabella gradually piecing the night together and substantiating her suspicions is the throughline for the dozen episodes, but each one takes in so much more it becomes almost – but never quite, because Coel’s discipline and sense of structure are as formidable as the rest of her abilities – dizzying. It becomes, as her family and friends and the connections (and disconnections) between them are fleshed out, a meditation on our responsibilities to ourselves and each other. It scrutinises the different forms of consent (Kwame, for example, has consensual sex with a Grindr date, but is almost immediately then assaulted by him). It demonstrates the subtlety of power distribution and redistribution even within a single conversation. It highlights in passing the difference between unwanted and regretted contact, anatomises the multiple manifestations and pervasiveness of entitlement, and holds up to the light our ability to rewrite stories to make bad experiences bearable or put their damage to some use.

It is, in short, an extraordinary, breathtaking achievement without a false note in it, shot through with humour and with ideas, talent and character to burn at every perfectly plotted turn. The friends are as ineffably, inexplicably funny together as friends always are, the counsellor who recommends handicrafts as a salve for sexual trauma is painfully amusing, and there are innumerable other points at which Coel’s script modulates smoothly and unerringly from comedy to tragedy and back again. It is the drama of the year so far.

If you’re one of the people who would like to go ahead and be racist and wrong about things now, I don’t suppose I can stop you. But watch the programme first for once, would you? It would seem to be the very least you can do.

Contributor

Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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