Programme Name: I May Destroy You - TX: 08/06/2020 - Episode: n/a (No. 1) - Picture Shows: Arabella (MICHAELA COEL) - (C) © Various Artists Ltd and FALKNA - Photographer: Laura Radford
Michaela Coel as Arabella in ‘I May Destroy You’ © Laura Radford/BBC/Various Artists Ltd and Falkna

Depending on your tolerance for self-absorbed, hedonistic Londoners who check their phones before, during and after every encounter, you may have to grit your teeth through the first episode of this 12-part series — but it’s worth sticking with. Written by and starring the remarkable Michaela Coel, it centres on Arabella, just back from a love-drenched trip to Rome with a problem on her hands. Her Twitter musings were turned into a bestseller, and now her barely written second opus is due with her agents pronto. Sitting at her laptop googling things like “how to write quickly”, she tries to ignore pleas from a wealthy friend, Simon, inviting her for last-minute drinks with his American cousin. Arabella’s debut was called Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial; what happens when she decides to join them will make fed-up feel like a festival.

Episode one goes by in a frenetic jumble of slang, shots and substances, with a bit of hip-hop karaoke thrown in. Totally at ease among the city’s glamazons, pink-haired Arabella is short and given to eccentric fashion stylings: cuffed baggy jeans, logo tees and bulky patterned cardies, although on her that’s cooler than it sounds. “I think you’re unusual . . . unusual ain’t bad,” says slick Simon, although she wasn’t his first choice of escort, and the cousin turns out to be an oaf who only looks up from his phone to give the occasional derisive smirk.

The next morning, a still-befuddled Arabella feels like something untoward happened towards the end of the night. Her phone screen is smashed, there’s a deep cut on her head, and Simon is being evasive. At the very least he abandoned her, and modern technology merely deepens the mystery. Apparently she took money out in Camden but can’t remember going there. The address she finds on an Uber receipt leads her to a woman who starts yelling like a banshee. Then the flashbacks start.

With sexual freedom pushing ever forwards and anxiety about consent forever pulling back, I May Destroy You operates right at the faultline. In an atmosphere where almost anything goes, and to object is to be judgy, when does behaviour that’s merely boorish and selfish cross over into the actively criminal? “What can I say, I’m a bad boy,” says one Romeo.

Arabella has to take a hard look at her friendship groups, but at least she can rely on stalwart Kwame, a gay personal trainer with his own struggles (Paapa Essiedu, who is phenomenal) and Terry (Weruche Opia), an actress whose audition for a Dove commercial brings the subject of black women’s hair unexpectedly to the fore. In its portrayal of the search for self-worth and the perfect orgasm, I May Destroy You just lit a firecracker under Normal People.

★★★★☆

‘I May Destroy You’, BBC1

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