With the release — and soaring popularity — of I May Destroy You in June, Michaela Coel destroyed our expectations of a “quarantine watch.” While the assumption was that everyone wanted fun, lighthearted escapism or an inexplicably addictive guilty pleasure to offset the horrors of our new pandemic reality, Coel came through with one of the most urgent, necessary, and bold examples of prestige TV in recent memory. I May Destroy You doesn’t shy away from real life; it’s effective because it does the opposite. It’s so real it will have you watching through your fingers and gasping at its devastation, awkward familiarity, biting humour, or all of the above.
That’s the beauty of Coel. In her writing or onscreen performances, the 32-year-old British Ghanaian auteur doesn’t settle for evoking one emotion — she’ll hit you with them all. The results are electric. In her breakout series Chewing Gum, which follows a 24-year-old virgin named Tracey who desperately wants to have sex, she delivered a vibrant burst of joy, jolting audiences with outlandish shock and hilarious awe, each scene more absurd than the next. But what made Chewing Gum so special is that it was unlike anything else on television. I May Destroy You isn’t either.
The HBO series is also about sex — sort of — but that’s where the similarities end. They are both brilliant in different ways. Chewing Gum treated intercourse like a punchline not to be taken too seriously, while I May Destroy You tackles consent with care and meticulous accuracy. Coel plays Arabella, a writer who is drugged and raped one night while out with friends. Over the course of the season, Arabella’s pain unfolds at once slowly and in sudden bursts. Watching her unpack her trauma is unsettling and mesmerizing. Somehow, Coel (who is the series’ showrunner, director, writer, and star) manages to make us laugh and cry in the same breath. Whether it’s a bloody period sex scene or a blistering monologue in a rape support group on boundaries and bad men, Coel is unflinching.
Coel’s fearlessness is even more astounding when you know that she based I May Destroy You on her own sexual assault. She processed her trauma through this 12-episode work of art. At a time when the world was collectively grieving, she gave us a season of television about grief. And maybe that’s why it felt like the perfect watch this year, even if it did have more weight than the lighter fare audiences were gravitating toward. I May Destroy You is about how messy, unpredictable, and devastating life can be. In 2020, a show that confronts all of that can act as its own form of therapy.
“I was surprised to find myself emotional while I wrote it, but I find that's what happens in therapy a lot,” Coel recently told Paper Mag. “It was cathartic. You know, therapists often advise their clients to journal. This felt like journaling very specifically about a traumatic event and then fictionalizing it.” Coel’s catharsis not only enraptured audiences, it enthralled critics who hailed this Black-ass series as television’s best of the year. Even though I May Destroy You deals with heavy subject matter, it’s not one of those stereotypical Black trauma stories. Each character is rich and given fullness and depth outside of their pain — that’s still too rare for Black people on TV. I’ve been a Michaela Coel stan since Chewing Gum, so I feel an overwhelming sense of pride that the world seems to be catching on to her genius. I’m grateful that she used our small screens as her journal, and was able to show the healing power of authentic Black narratives. Next year, I hope she gets all the awards and accolades she deserves. She’s already given us more of herself than we deserve.