If you’ve read anything about “I May Destroy You,” it probably contained a variation on the phrase “sexual consent drama,” and maybe that made the new HBO series sound like an illustrated lecture. The good news — unless a position statement is what you want from your art — is that it’s anything but.
The series was created by the volcanically talented British actress and writer Michaela Coel, who wrote the 12 half-hour episodes and directed some of them, too. (Sam Miller is the other director.) Beginning on Sunday, “I May Destroy You” is a coming-of-age story, a generational snapshot and a tart, tender salute to the primal value of friendship when you’re young and underemployed. Its plot is built around a hazily remembered rape (based on Coel’s own experience), and the processes of recovery and investigation that follow. But the show is never just about that.
“I thought you were writing about consent,” someone says to Arabella, the aspiring novelist at the center of the story. “So did I,” she replies.
Coel, known for the raucous comedy “Chewing Gum” — about a young woman in a London housing project who’s desperate to lose her virginity — has an uncommon ability as a writer to blend the serious and the sardonic, in a way that doesn’t wink at the audience. In “I May Destroy You,” she rarely strikes a false note.
And as Arabella, she’s the embodiment of brainy, hyper-aware intensity, without the slapstick gawkiness she wielded in “Chewing Gum” but with the same riveting physical presence. Playing a character who’s scrambling for control of her life but refuses to see herself tragically, Coel brings a superb discipline to the portrayal of distress.
When the story begins, Arabella is an accidental writer struggling to meet her first real deadline — she has one book to her credit, published as a PDF and titled “Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial,” which grew out of a series of tweets. She’s a champion procrastinator — the depiction of the not-writing process is just one of the show’s many pitch-perfect vignettes — and during an all-nighter, she takes a break to meet a friend at a club. The next morning she comes to consciousness sitting at her computer, happily hitting the send button but harboring a disturbing image of a man looming over her in a restroom stall. Her reaction at that point is not horror but a bemused “Huh.”
The tightly wound Arabella is an enthusiastic partyer and consumer of party drugs, facts that the show presents as pertinent to her story but not as reasons for judgment or sentimental regret. Nothing’s that simple. On the night she’s attacked, she stays sober because she’s planning to return to work but then falls victim to a spiked drink. In the aftermath, the only person who blames her for the situation is a sometime lover whom she met when she bought drugs from him.
Arabella is helped, for the most part, in her post-rape program of self-care by her two best friends: Terry (Weruche Opia, who’s fabulous), an overly dramatic but steadfast actress, and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), an aerobics instructor who appears to spend every waking moment checking in on the gay hookup app Grindr. The series makes room for their adventures in negotiating the contemporary sexual landscape. These include a problematic threesome for Terry and a forced sexual encounter for Kwame, but also potentially rewarding relationships for both — subplots that are well executed but can feel schematic.
Six hours isn’t an excessive length, but filling out 12 episodes means a lot of story lines, and while the series begins and ends strongly, there are times in the middle when it loses some focus. (Coel was adamant about the rhythms of the episodic structure, even persuading the BBC not to binge-post the entire season online.)
The mystery story of “I May Destroy You” is its least important element. The police are sympathetic and active in investigating Arabella’s case, but they aren’t able to help her. And when she appears to have finally solved it herself, Coel presents the denouement in a way that makes it clear that she’s less interested in a tidy resolution than in the story Arabella is building for herself.
The real theme is Arabella’s progress toward regaining her memory in every area of her life — just as she represses the images of the rape, she’s repressing painful or inconvenient memories about family and friends. Her journey is not toward revenge as much as toward a fully examined life.
And at just about every step, it’s touching and quietly hilarious. Coel gets away with things that would be dicey for other writer-directors, and she does it with consistency. Scenes that would normally be heavy have odd, almost subterranean comic edges, without shading over into obvious satire. (One example: When Franc Ashman, as an oracular but fiercely trendy publisher, hears of Arabella’s recent trauma and exclaims, “Rape! Fantastic!” in a way that’s impossible to take offense at.)
And as the slightly awkward hedonist and somewhat apologetic attention hog at the center of the story, Coel is, as usual, impossible to turn away from.