Every February, as the Golden Globe nominations are announced, I think to myself, “I’m not going to care this year.” And of course, every year, I inevitably fall prey to some grievous oversight or unbelievably undeserved recognition — I’ll fire off a couple of tweets about how “Uncut Gems” or Robert Pattinson were robbed, for example. But this year, I found myself utterly consumed with a sense of anger.
While there was plenty of heated discussion on Twitter about shows like “The Prom” and “Emily in Paris” getting recognition from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, what galled me (and many others) was not the inclusion of a couple of pretty bad shows, but the exclusion of one absolutely brilliant one.
Michaela Coel’s semi-autobiographical 12-part series, “I May Destroy You,” is a masterful show that shook up the television landscape from the moment its pilot episode aired on HBO last June. The series follows literary social media star Arabella and her close circle of friends, whose experiences as young, Black creatives in London initially feel like a pitch-perfect look at the millennial experience but quickly turn into a searing, unflinching, yet eminently tender and funny examination of sexual assault, consent, trauma and healing.
It’s a singularly powerful look at the quiet devastation of assault. Of how it tears at the fabric of your identity, your friendship, your creativity and your relationship to your past self. At times, Coel’s excavation of the banality of rape, of the processes and rituals of reporting and repeating the details of your assault to friends, police and yourself, can be excruciating viewing. The litigation of consent, what it means and who it benefits can be deeply uncomfortable.
This week, that uncomfortability (but those necessary conversations) became all the more relevant, as more high-profile women came forward as survivors of sexual assault: Evan Rachel Wood was one of five women to allege musician Marilyn Manson abused them, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) described her compounded trauma after the Capitol riot by saying that she’s a survivor of sexual assault.
In other words, “I May Destroy You” is essential viewing, and it should be treated as such — by audiences, by critics, by one of television’s biggest awards. But to paint the show as homework — something you ought to watch to understand such an experience — would be doing a disservice to the immense joy and love found throughout its 12 episodes.
Because Coel serves as the show’s star, creator, writer and producer, we get a uniquely unified vision, not just of trauma, but of what it is to be young, gifted and Black in 2020. The relationship between Coel’s Arabella and her best friend Terry, played beautifully by Weruche Opia, is a rarely seen portrait of friendship between two Black women, supporting each other through their creative desires, their romantic conquests and hurdles, and ultimately through pain and betrayal. Their constant refrain to each other, “Your blood is my blood, your death is my death,” helps anchor the show in their devotion and serves to remind the viewer that trauma does not and will not define or destroy Arabella.
Through “I May Destroy You,” Coel manages to paint a crisp generational portrait not just through her storytelling, but through her music choices; through Arabella’s clothing and hair; through Coel’s performance. As Arabella, Coel is at turns charming, neurotic, compulsive and destructive. She is joyful, excited, inspired and then undone. She is every one of us.
It feels almost wrong to even write about “Emily in Paris” and “I May Destroy You” in the same sentence — there’s truly no comparison in quality or impact between the two — but many people have been making the comparison. Of course, it’s worthwhile noting that a show best known for the hate-watching it inspired received multiple Golden Globe nominations, including best series and best actress. That one was created by a White man and starred in by a White woman. Meanwhile, a show that has been lauded by critics — and written and led by a Black woman — was snubbed. As many others, including a writer for “Emily in Paris,” pointed out, this doesn’t seem like an oversight. Instead, it’s Hollywood’s perpetuation of elevating White and male creators, while marginalizing women of color.
The comparisons critics have made of Coel’s “I May Destroy You” to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s “Fleabag” are more apt, as both are singular storytellers with the ability to connect the immensely personal with the universal. But where Waller-Bridge won best actress and best television series for “Fleabag” at the Globes last year, Coel has been denied even a single nomination. So what happened here?
It’s not as if “I May Destroy You” was an under-the-radar series. It had a prominent run on HBO. Coel was on the cover of New York Magazine’s television issue; she was crowned the Wall Street Journal Magazine’s television innovator of the year; the New York Times named her one of the best performers of the year; and she was on the covers of W Magazine and GQ. Celebrities raved about the show on Twitter, and each weekly episode was afforded breathless recaps and elicited GIF-worthy reactions online. To be overlooked by the HFPA completely, to be absent from every single category, feels not just wrong, but frankly, impossible.
We should have been arguing over how many nominations the show got; its writing and acting both deserved nods. Instead, we’re left asking how a show that set the bar for how to talk about rape and consent could have been excluded entirely from these awards.
“I May Destroy You” is exactly the kind of prestige, visionary TV that the Globes should be lauding, but many say it’s par for the course for the HFPA and the Globes, which have long struggled with representation and diversity. Each year, the ceremony itself feels like an exercise in White privilege. The worst part of all is that while this snubbing feels ridiculous, it’s not, sadly, all that unbelievable.
Ultimately, Coel doesn’t need the Golden Globes. If they hope to stay at all relevant after this, they desperately need her.