The Rage of Consent: Why You Must Watch HBO's 'I May Destroy You'

Michaela Coel shines a light on sexual consent, the South African thriller ‘Trackers’ offers a vacation in Cape Town, musical cartoon ‘Central Park’ charms and there’s good news for English-speaking Yes subscribers

Adrian Hennigan
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Michaela Coel in "I May Destroy You."
Michaela Coel in "I May Destroy You."Credit: HBO
Adrian Hennigan

As far as I am concerned, my kids’ childhoods ended the day they stopped seeing skipping as a legitimate form of public transportation. Likewise, I became middle-aged the first time I stepped outside on a sunny, blustery day and thought “Great drying weather!” And now, at the grand old age of 53, I have entered a new, even sadder, stage of life: watching sex scenes on television and thinking, “This is a bit racy.”

Yes, yes, “racy” is a word generally used by people who think Grindr is a kitchen appliance and Tinder something dyslexic lumberjacks shout. But I should also point out that some of that word’s other meanings perfectly sum up Michaela Coel’s new HBO show, “I May Destroy You” – for instance, “having a strongly marked quality” and “full of zest and vigor.”

This is without doubt one of the most distinctive and captivating shows about twentysomethings I have seen in many a year. A lazy critic – hello! – might be tempted to compare it to last year’s HBO show about screwed-up American youth, “Euphoria.” But “Destroy” has three important things the Zendaya series sorely lacked: warmth, wit and weight.

“What genre is this?” a character asks early on about a book the protagonist is trying to write. It’s an equally valid question of the show itself – one that its 12 episodes do their best to avoid offering a definitive answer to. At its best, Coel’s show is dramatic, comedic, enigmatic … in a word, fantastic.

Set in present-day London, with the occasional detour to Italy and even more occasional flashback to the characters’ schooldays, this HBO-BBC co-production is a smart way of educating young audiences – and, indeed, older souls like myself – about a subject as old as time yet whose ever-greater complexities perfectly mirror those of modern life: sexual assault.

Writer-creator Coel based the show’s central storyline on a personal experience, one so depressingly common it has its own acronym: DFSA, or drug-facilitated sexual assault. But this is just one of several strands in this ambitious show that looks at various examples of sexual consent and wonders where the increasingly blurred line falls. (I think I prefer my alternative title to the actual one: “The Gauge of Consent.”)

If you haven’t seen Coel before – she created and starred in the British comedy “Chewing Gum,” drawing on the hardscrabble London neighborhood of her youth; and was the best thing in the Netflix thriller “Black Earth Rising,” set against the backdrop of the Rwandan genocide – you’re in for a treat here.

A mesmeric screen presence, the 32-year-old multi-hyphenate stars as Arabella, a young writer whose first book, “Chronicles of a Fed-up Millennial,” was basically a cobbled-together series of tweets. Now charged with writing her sophomore effort, she’s finding it considerably harder to write compelling characters when they aren’t limited to 280 words per message.

Having burned through her book advance in the Roman suburb of Ostia, where she struck up a friendship with benefits with local drug dealer Biagio (the charismatic Marouane Zotti – but then, everyone here barring Arabella’s mopey roommate Ben is pretty magnetic), she returns home to London. Here she renews acquaintances with her fun-loving coterie of friends – most notably bestie Terry (Weruche Opia) and fitness trainer and longtime friend Kwame (Paapa Essiedu).

Coel may be the star around which the plot revolves, but Opia and Essiedu’s performances and characters are equally essential to the show’s success. Terry is a wannabe actress with a vivacious nature whose absence is felt whenever she’s off-screen (a little frustratingly, we see nothing of her own home life). The gentle soul that is Kwame, meanwhile, gets some of the most moving scenes, especially after he suffers a hellish incident with one of his Grindr hookups.

Michaela Coel, left, Paapa Essiedu and Weruche Opia in HBO's "I May Destroy You."
Michaela Coel, left, Paapa Essiedu and Weruche Opia in HBO's "I May Destroy You."Credit: LAURA RADFORD / HBO

As I began watching the show, my concern was whether it could sustain itself over its dozen 30-minute episodes. I needn’t have worried. By the end, I was genuinely sorry to bid these characters adieu and couldn’t wait to see them again. Maybe that will happen if my 17-year-old daughter watches the show – which I would strongly advise any young person over 16 to do. Because while it feels like some kind of anthropological study to someone of my more advanced age, the show may save, not destroy, any teen about to venture into the world of bars and clubs.

“I May Destroy You” will provoke laughter, tears, anger and maybe even a few winces – “period sex” was never like this in a Merchant Ivory film. It also serves as a brilliant showcase for black British acting talent (there’s a lot of it) and takes Coel a step closer to her inexorable rise to the top.

The show’s unpredictable brilliance is encapsulated by a moment when Arabella sits destitute on an Italian beach, at her lowest ebb. Respect to whoever decided that the only music that could possibly match this particularly crushing moment was the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir from Quebec belting out a stirring Jewish prayer. Amen to that.

Out of South Africa

While “I May Destroy You” is a British-American show offering generally familiar views of central London, the new South African thriller “Trackers” manages to offer something refreshingly different while simultaneously being weighed down by overfamiliar genre tropes.

So while this six-part series starts off in frustratingly boilerplate fashion, it comes to life when it places Cape Town front and center. Whenever we normally see Cape Town on screen, it is generally standing in for somewhere else, but here we get to see the port in all its glory. Half of the show’s budget seems to have been spent on drone shots showcasing those stunning Table Mountain vistas and also the city’s less, shall we say, touristy side.

It’s just a shame that the show’s thriller element is so generic: It’s that old terrorist plot thing where local radical Islamists are planning to blow up something big, with the aid of mysterious incoming Al-Qaida operatives whose previous handiwork included blowing up the pipeline between Egypt and Israel – an incident that, in fairness, happens so often, Haaretz created this page for it.

And because the South African TV industry is still young, I’ll allow “Trackers” its sex scene that intercuts between an amorous couple and a violent standoff elsewhere – but that’s it. A global moratorium is now in place on that horribly overused editing trick.

A scene from the South African thriller "Trackers." Cape Town has a starring role.
A scene from the South African thriller "Trackers." Cape Town has a starring role.Credit: Nick Strasburg / Cinemax

Much more interesting is the set of characters assembled at the Presidential Bureau of Intelligence, a reassuringly low-tech government agency where the computers look like they were invented by Alan Turing and the staff rely on good old-fashioned paperwork to crack a case (all the while casting an envious eye on their U.S. counterparts and their doubtless “super-duper” gadgetry).

I also enjoyed the show’s protagonist, Lemmer (James Gracie), a former agent who has “fallen off the grid” following an op that went badly wrong and is now muscle for hire. What are the odds that his past and present are going to collide pretty soon? And sure, we’ve seen his taciturn type a million times before – “I talk when I have something to say,” he mumbles at one point – but I like his “poor-man’s Jason Bateman” approach and chemistry with one of the show’s eponymous trackers, Flea (Trix Vivier).

A scene from the South African thriller "Trackers."
A scene from the South African thriller "Trackers."Credit: Nick Strasburg / Cinemax

Oh, and I also love the fact that in each of South Africa’s 11 official languages, the word “fook” appears to sound the same in all of them.

I can’t tell you that “Trackers” is the best thriller you’ll see this year. I’m not even sure it’s the best one you’ll see this month. But given that it’s going to be a long time before most of us jet off to exotic climes, I was happy to enjoy its small pleasures. And let’s be honest, it’s not often you get to see a show where the phrase “Pushing the black rhino” is not a euphemism.

If “I May Destroy You” was the viewing pleasure of the week and “Trackers” the guilty pleasure, “Central Park” (Apple TV +) was undoubtedly the feel-good pleasure.

This cartoon is so unabashedly sweet, it should come with a health warning for diabetics. It is such a thing of unadulterated joy that I actually felt a little guilty for watching it while the United States was going to hell in a handbasket on every single news channel.

But watch and love it I did, and I recommend you do likewise. An animated musical with a heart as big as the Manhattan institution, I’m still smiling at songs like “Weirdos Make Great Superheroes” (written by Sara Bareilles) and a roller-skating number called “Do It While You Can” that really puts the crappy “Starlight Express” to shame.

It’s a ridiculously starry cast (Kristen Bell, Kathryn Hahn, Stanley Tucci, Josh Gad, Tituss Burgess) and promises to be the most joyful 25 minutes of your week, being just the right side of silly – which is “too silly,” obviously.

Finally, some great news for Yes satellite TV subscribers in Israel who want to watch hit local shows but lack the Hebrew skills to follow what the heck everyone is saying. “Yes English” is a free VOD service that provides English subtitles for acclaimed shows such as the now world-renowned thriller “Fauda”; “On the Spectrum,” an award-winning comedy-drama about three roommates with autism; the thriller “Your Honor,” which has just been remade in the United States by the husband-and-wife team behind “The Good Wife/Fight”; and “Just for Today,” a drama about former prison inmates whose halfway house is threatened with closure.

Kudos to Yes for introducing the service – and giving those of us who subscribe to Hot a real dilemma. Why? Because “pushing the black rhino” really is a euphemism for trying to change your TV provider in Israel.

“I May Destroy You” is on Hot HBO, starting Tuesday at 9 P.M., as well as Hot VOD, Yes VOD, Next TV, Cellcom TV and Sting TV from Monday (and on HBO in America on Sundays). “Trackers” is on Hot HBO, starting Sunday at 10 P.M., Yes Action (and Sting TV) from June 14 at 10:45 P.M., and Hot VOD, Yes VOD, Next TV and Cellcom TV from Saturday (and on Cinemax in America on Fridays). “Central Park” is on Apple TV +, with new episodes dropping every Friday.

Comments