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'I May Destroy You' review: Powerful subject, unfocused execution

Michaela Coel in HBO's "I May Destroy You."

Michaela Coel in HBO's "I May Destroy You." Credit: HBO/Laura Radford

SERIES "I May Destroy You"

WHEN|WHERE Premieres Sunday at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT London-based writer Arabella Essiedu (Michaela Coel, star/creator of Brit cult hit, "Chewing Gum") has published her first successful book (something about millennial lives like her own) and her agents are anxious for the next. But under deadline, Arabella does what all blocked writers do: She goes out and parties with friends. After one of them spikes her drink with a date-rape drug, she wakes up the next morning a rape victim. She then begins the anguished process of finding out what happened.

MY SAY While just 32, Coel is already a champion-caliber multihyphenate. Writer, poet, singer, songwriter, playwright, producer, actress, she's also Ghanaian-British, if that hyphen counts too. Not that collecting hyphens was the goal. She went to drama school, decided she didn't believe herself in the roles she had been cast in, so then set about writing plays (and roles) she could believe seeing herself in. Meanwhile, the poetry came (in part) from her conversion to Christianity (she's since unconverted). Out of all this came "Chewing Gum," her two-season sensation that got her a best actress BAFTA TV Award, the equivalent of an Emmy here. 

And out of "Chewing Gum" has come "I May Destroy You." Two years ago, Coel revealed that she had been sexually assaulted by strangers while working on "Chewing Gum." Roughly same circumstances described here: A spiked drink, a blackout night, shards of memories the next day. 

Arabella has just one — a man standing over her, doing something. You (and she) don't know exactly what that is, but whatever it is, it's really bad. She then begins the process of finding out what happened, while navigating, or dodging, a whole range of sublimated feelings. Those include guilt, anger, confusion, fury and basic befuddlement. "I want to learn how to avoid being raped," she tells a self-help group. "There must be a way."

"Destroy" takes 12 episodes to (presumably) find out. The first six — the ones I've seen — don't necessarily make it easy to decide whether it's worth the trouble getting there. As you already know, Coel is a gifted actress and especially gifted writer, with a good ear (and eye) for the weird non-sequiturs that pop up over the course of an aimless day or night, especially when drinks (or something harder) are consumed. 

She's got the ambition to match that considerable talent. "Destroy" is about a painfully important (and relevant) subject: Consent, or in the words of the program notes, how "we make the distinction between liberation and exploitation."

 But it can also be a genre hash, or maybe the better word is sprawl. From comedy to drama then back again, Arabella's story also takes the form of memory play, and you're left to wonder whether she's as reliable a narrator as her memories. 

That may be the whole point. She's a sexual assault victim, after all. But the point loses focus in the sprawl. It loses power too. Six episodes felt like more than enough, at moments too much. 

 BOTTOM LINE Coel's a great talent — no doubt about that — but this can be an aggravating, unfocused sprawl at times. The power and horror of Arabella's ordeal is the unintended casualty.     

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