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Commentary: A new HBO series rethinks the sexual assault survivor story. It’s brave and charming

Michaela Coel in her HBO series "I May Destroy You."
(Laura Radford/HBO)

HBO’s “I May Destroy You” is a flippant, fun, young British comedy set in the Millennial flats, clubs and bars of London … or so it seems.

Angelenos may see “Insecure” parallels in this group of Black girlfriends trying to find their way in impossibly confusing times. They too have a fiercely independent sense of style, speak in social media-isms and are accompanied by a killer soundtrack.

But by episode two, which airs Sunday night on HBO, the 12-part series evolves into a full-blown mystery that revolves around solving what happened during a blackout night of drinking. And it’s anything but frivolous. Sexual assault, questions about consent, and double standards of justice around race and gender are just a few of the fraught areas where “I May Destroy You” dares to tread.

The half-hour series written and produced by “Chewing Gum’s” Michaela Coel follows gregarious, eccentric writer Arabella (played by Coel) and her inner circle as they navigate careers, relationships, casual hook ups and their own identity in an overpriced city that sees itself as more progressive than it really is.

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Michaela Coel in "I May Destroy You." Credit: HBO
Michaela Coel in “I May Destroy You.” Credit: HBO
(HBO)

But their friendships take a sharp turn when Arabella decides to take a break from her writing (which she’ll do anything to avoid) and meet up with mates for a drink. The night is a blur, and she wakes up the next morning bruised, disoriented, wondering what the hell happened.

Plagued by flashbacks that Arabella initially believes to be nightmares, she begins to realize she was drugged and raped, possibly by a “friend” or his acquaintances. To help put the pieces together, she relies on her close confidants Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu). Uber tracking, cellphone data and gum shoe investigation also play a part in reconstructing the chain of life-changing events.

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Questions abound, but Arabella’s emotional journey is the real story here. She’s plagued by guilt, shame, fear and anger, all of which prove obstacles and then motivators in her quest for accountability and truth. And it’s a harrowing journey.

Arabella, after all, is a creative, independent force, full of snarky, sharp wit and replete with cotton-candy pink hair. She’s not a victim. She’s a smart, savvy feminist who should have seen this coming, right? Wrong. Common ideas about the weakness and vulnerability of sexual assault victims are explored and debunked early on in this series through her personal plight.

In a furious, unfunny 27-minute set posted to the Netflix Is a Joke YouTube page, Dave Chappelle traces a path from slavery to the death of George Floyd.

Incredibly, “I May Destroy You” still manages to laugh, and get laughs, thanks to Coel’s undeniable knack for finding comedy in the darkest places. It’s a brave effort that dares to pair humor with intense, difficult subject matter. The result is a series that’s as intimate and authentic as it is topical and necessary.

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Coel, 32, said the idea behind the BBC series was pulled from her own experience while she was writing the second installation of “Chewing Gum.” She took a break from work, went out to meet a friend and lost consciousness after someone slipped a drug in her drink. Like Arabella, she subsequently experienced flashbacks, deep emotional grief and eventually recalled she was sexually assaulted. It took 2 1/2 years to write her story.

HBO recognized tackling the issue of rape and recovery, a half-hour episode a time, on TV no less, required more. The digital content series “Gathering the Pieces” was launched to help further the discussion.

Hard as this material may be, “I May Destroy You” won’t destroy viewers. The series is also whimsical and charming, reflecting the personality of its star, a survivor with a tale to tell.

‘I May Destroy You’

Where: HBO
When: 9 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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