I May Destroy You, the new HBO/BBC series

I May Destroy You

In the Mac­Tag­gart lec­ture she gave at the 2018 Edin­burgh TV Fes­ti­val, Michaela Coel, the star of Chan­nel 4’s sun­ny sit­com Chew­ing Gum, told a stunned audi­ence that she’d been sex­u­al­ly assault­ed. She’d been out on the tear try­ing to avoid a writ­ing dead­line, and the fol­low­ing morn­ing she began get­ting sin­is­ter flach­backs. It’s just such a night that her daz­zling­ly impres­sive 12 part dram­e­dy series I May Destroy You cir­cles around.

Coel plays Ara­bel­la, a thir­ty some­thing doyenne of the Twit­terati who is expect­ed to build upon the suc­cess of her sur­prise best sell­er Chron­i­cles of a Fed-up Mil­len­ni­al by deliv­er­ing its sequel to her agent and publisher. 

And, faced with a 9am dead­line she does what any respectable writer would, and heads out on the town. The fol­low­ing morn­ing, as the haze of the night before begins to slow­ly clear, she starts to get flash­backs of being raped.

Over the rest of the series, she and her clos­est two friends, aspi­rant actress, Ter­ry and their gay part­ner in crime, Kwame, slow­ly piece togeth­er the events of the night. 

But the ‘event’ of that night is as much the back­drop as it is the focus for the sto­ries that the series fol­lows. As the char­ac­ters exper­i­ment with drugs and sex, work and play in search of what they assume will be revealed as their true iden­ti­ties in a world where iden­ti­ties, cer­tain­ties and all man­ner of lines have been seen to dis­ap­pear ‘neath per­pet­u­al­ly shift­ing sands.

What’s so exhil­a­rat­ing about the series is the way in which Coel steers, and fre­quent­ly veers between com­e­dy, pathos, iron­ic detach­ment, gen­uine pain and back again. And often, all in the course of the same, sin­gle scene.

We flash­back to Arabella’s Ital­ian boyfriend, and the trip she and Ter­ry make to Ostia, on the out­skirts of Rome. To her child­hood, and her estranged and ide­alised father. And to an event at school that is looked back upon in a very dif­fer­nt light. And all the while, every­thing is slow­ly but sure­ly help­ing to cre­ate a pic­ture of exact­ly what it was that hap­pened that night.

The writ­ing is flaw­less, both struc­tural­ly and dia­logue-wise, it’s impec­ca­bly put togeth­er and all the per­for­mances are note per­fect. Most impres­sive­ly, not to say unusu­al­ly of all, Coel man­ages to deliv­er on the season’s finale, which I’ll obvi­ous­ly not spoil by say­ing any­thing about here.

I May Destroy you is that rare thing. A series that com­fort­ably lives up to and deliv­ers on all of the entire­ly jus­ti­fi­able hype.

You can see the trail­er to I May Destroy You here.

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HBO’s Our Boys

Our Boys is the sort of thing many peo­ple will feel they ought to try and see, rather than some­thing that they actu­al­ly want to watch. Well, I’m hap­py to report, though per­fect­ly under­stand­able giv­en its sub­ject mat­ter, that ret­i­cence is entire­ly unwarranted.

Co-cre­at­ed by the Israeli showrun­ner Hagai Levi, who’d pre­vi­ous­ly made In Treat­ment, and the Pales­tin­ian writer, Taw­fik Abu-Wael, Our Boys was picked up and shown on HBO, and was met by almost uni­ver­sal acclaim.

Pre­dictably, hard­lin­ers on either side of the Israeli Arab divide were equal­ly furi­ous, offend­ed and out­raged. Which, need­less to say, strong­ly sug­gests the show hits absolute­ly the right note.

The sto­ry that the dra­ma depicts takes place at a very spe­cif­ic moment in time. Three Jew­ish boys have been kid­napped and mur­dered by Pales­tini­ans, but Our Boys begins in the imme­di­ate after­math of that hor­rif­ic event. 

In oth­er words, it doesn’t focus on the deaths of the three Israelis, but on the kid­nap­ping, killing and burn­ing of the Pales­tin­ian boy that a trio of fanat­i­cal Israelis take their revenge on.

Our Boys.

What’s so grip­ping and end­less­ly fas­ci­nat­ing about the show is the way it delin­eates each of the lay­ers that sub-divide both sets of com­mu­ni­ties. Giv­ing each and every fac­tion its own weight, and its char­ac­ters a chance to explain them­selves from their points of view.

Despite focus­ing on two very nar­row tracts of land on either side of what is effec­tive­ly the cur­rent board­er, each com­mu­ni­ty is end­less­ly split with­in its own walls. So there is the divide amongst the “set­tlers”, between the Ashke­naz­im and the Mizrahim. 

And then between the more, and the less pious, in both of those groups. And, amongst that for­mer group, between those who are more peace­ably inclined, and those who feel that enough is enough, and an eye demands an eye, as the bible clear­ly states.

Gabriel Byrne in HBO’s remake of In Treat­ment.

Like­wise, amongst the Pales­tini­ans, the boy’s father wants to press the Israeli police for jus­tice and attend the court pro­ceed­ings that fol­low, once the per­pe­tra­tors have been appre­hend­ed. But all that does, he is angri­ly told, is to acknowl­edge the Israeli’s right to juris­dic­tion over them, and to absolve them of the con­tin­ued and per­pet­u­al mis­treat­ment that the Pales­tin­ian peo­ple are for­ev­er the sub­ject of at their hands.

What’s so depress­ing, and of course so famil­iar for any­one who’s ever spent any time north of Dun­dalk, is that, despite all these sub­tle and nuanced dis­tinc­tions, absolute­ly every dis­cus­sion, con­ver­sa­tion, argu­ment and fight ends up being about one thing. Either you’re with us, or you’re with them. Which is as true for the Israelis as it is for the Palestinians.

Ulti­mate­ly, the show tri­umphs by refus­ing not mere­ly to take sides, but to in any way judge. The result is a series that is con­tin­u­al­ly illu­mi­nat­ing and end­less­ly gripping.

You can see the trail­er to HBO’s Our Boys here. And you can read the slight­ly longer appraisal in Har­retz, the admit­ted­ly lib­er­al (in the con­text of Israeli pol­i­tics) jour­nal here

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HBO’s Chernobyl.


So, who wants to watch that new series on Cher­nobyl”, has to be pret­ty much the least entic­ing invi­ta­tion imag­in­able. And yet, remark­ably, HBO’s Cher­nobyl is com­fort­ably the most excit­ing and the most bril­liant­ly realised tele­vi­sion series of the last four or five years. 

On one lev­el, this oughtn’t to have been a sur­prise. We all know, at least in the­o­ry, that sto­ries have noth­ing to do with their unadorned con­tent, and depend entire­ly for their suc­cess on how they are told. The base mate­r­i­al is irrel­e­vant, what mat­ters is how they are mould­ed into being.

Mad Men.

After all, who wants to watch a series in which the police depart­ment of a non­de­script, US city tries to deal with its inner city drug prob­lem, and all the social issues that that cre­ates? Or one about a bunch of priv­i­leged, white, most­ly unpleas­ant mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sion­als, wor­ried about what to spend their inflat­ed salaries on, and who next to be unfaith­ful with, at the turn of the 1960s? And yet.

Nev­er­the­less, the prospect of spend­ing five, hour-long episodes watch­ing the Sovi­et Union deal­ing poor­ly with the acci­dent at one of its nuclear pow­er plants in Ukraine, in 1986, was an espe­cial­ly unap­peal­ing one. How wrong I was.

Jared Har­ris in Cher­nobyl.

The first mis­take was to assume that I knew what the sto­ry had been. Like, I imag­ine, the vast major­i­ty of peo­ple, I actu­al­ly knew next to noth­ing about what had actu­al­ly hap­pened at Cher­nobyl. And the first thing to say is that Cher­nobyl is metic­u­lous­ly, indeed exhaus­tive­ly researched. Because of which, it con­stant­ly surprises. 

But even more impres­sive is how cin­e­mat­ic it is. There is a visu­al con­fi­dence and ambi­tion to the direct­ing that match­es the ten­sion and dra­ma cre­at­ed by the script. So that episodes fre­quent­ly nod to some of the gen­res that have most suc­cess­ful­ly pop­u­lat­ed our screens of late, like the zom­bie flick and hor­ror in general. 

The eeri­ly desert­ed streets of Pripyat.

But when you see the eeri­ly desert­ed city streets in episode 2, it’s ren­dered gen­uine­ly unnerv­ing because you know that this is not some genre piece. This is what actu­al­ly hap­pened to the city of Pripy­at. Its 50,000 inhab­i­tants were forcibly evac­u­at­ed in less than two days. And that crea­ture in the bed is not some fiendish ghoul or invad­ing extra ter­res­tri­al, it’s a human being in the lat­er stages of extreme radi­a­tion sickness. 

There are a con­stant stream of won­der­ful­ly sub­tle, visu­al flour­ish­es. As we leave on one of the myr­i­ad bus­es that are trans­port­ing the peo­ple of Pripy­at to God knows where, a dog bounds down the street behind us. Someone’s fam­i­ly pet is try­ing for­lorn­ly to join them and jump on board. 

That non­de­script US city police depart­ment show. 

As – the excel­lent – Jared Har­ris steps up to give his evi­dence at the tri­al that the series cul­mi­nates with, the cam­era drunk­en­ly tilts in slo mo. Par­tial­ly, this is because his own radi­a­tion sick­ness has begun to kick in, and par­tial­ly this is a reflec­tion of his ner­vous­ness at the prospect of hav­ing to give evi­dence at a Sovi­et show tri­al. But they refrain from lin­ger­ing on this tricksi­ness, and they quick­ly move on to the evi­dence itself. 

Noth­ing is over­done, and every­thing is exact­ly as it should be, which is what makes it such a tri­umph. And its direc­tor, Johan Renck, and writer, Craig Mazin, are names to be watched. 

You can see the trail­er for Cher­nobyl here

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HBO’s “Entourage” Ends on a High.

Entourage came to an end this year with its eighth and final series. The show revolves around up and com­ing Hol­ly­wood heart-throb Vince and his mot­ley crew. There’s his best friend and man­ag­er E, his less suc­cess­ful actor broth­er Dra­ma (played by Kevin Dil­lon, the less suc­cess­ful actor broth­er of Matt), his friend and gofer Tur­tle, and his agent Ari, and his wife, assis­tant and var­i­ous love interests.

It’s Mark Wahlberg’s baby, and all of the char­ac­ters are based unashamed­ly and far from loose­ly on his own real life cast of char­ac­ters. It could eas­i­ly have been insuf­fer­able, like watch­ing one of those nev­er-end­ing in-jokes that Sina­tra and his rat pack used to make in Las Vegas and release as a movie. As with drugs, fun to do, oh so tedious to watch.

But thanks to its clever plot­ting, gen­tle ban­ter and pitch-per­fect per­for­mances it man­aged instead to be irre­press­ibly effer­ves­cent. Basi­cal­ly 30 Rock for boys, it was impos­si­ble not to be charmed. Or at least it was for its first few series’.

Amer­i­can TV series are writ­ten in the spir­it of un-dilut­ed cap­i­tal­ism. Once a show has got beyond its pilot and grad­u­at­ed into its first and sec­ond series, its num­bers are relent­less­ly poured over. And the writ­ers are called back in and told which of their sto­ry­lines have and have not worked, and which ele­ments of the show need to be dialed up and which ones qui­et­ly shelved. 

So that fre­quent­ly, lat­er episodes in a series have been com­plete­ly re-imag­ined in response to how the audi­ence react­ed to the dif­fer­ent sto­ry­lines in the first few episodes. 

Unsur­pris­ing­ly, this can some­times be dis­as­trous. Series 2 of Twin Peaks, and much of the lat­ter half of Lost being obvi­ous exam­ples. But here it has to be admit­ted the sys­tem has unde­ni­ably worked. 

What had been so endear­ing about the troupe ini­tial­ly was that, despite all the out­ward appear­ances of liv­ing the wet dream in an end­less reel of unin­hib­it­ed debauch­ery and unre­strained hedo­nism, all of their lives sucked. Every one of their rela­tion­ships was a com­plete disaster.

But by the time we get to series 5, and espe­cial­ly 6 and 7, they have each become so gar­ish­ly suc­cess­ful, that every­thing else about their lives has been drowned out. You’d have episodes in which one char­ac­ter gives the oth­er a Maserati, and then lat­er they race one anoth­er at the traf­fic lights.

Nobody minds see­ing suc­cess, in fact we love watch­ing pret­ty young things liv­ing the dream, so long as they are all pro­found­ly and vis­i­bly unhap­py. Thank­ful­ly, the home­work was done, and the writ­ers duly respond­ed. And accord­ing­ly, come series 8 absolute­ly every­thing is going wrong for each and every one of them, and in every con­ceiv­able way. It’s great.

There’s talk at the moment of a movie fol­low-up. Let’s hope they hur­ry up and script it. They’re back on a roll.

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