▶ I Hate Suzie is available on Sky Atlantic and Now TV.
With a vogue for perceived ‘authenticity’ driving criticism of artists for exploring subject matter from beyond their own immediate frame of reference, are we in for a rash of shows about show business? Hot on the heels of firebrand breakout writing talent Michaela Coel enumerating the experiences of a firebrand breakout writing talent in I May Destroy You, here former child star turned serious actress and tabloid target Billie Piper plays… well, you get the idea.
Piper isn’t the writer here, but is credited as an executive producer, having evolved the eight-part show in partnership with the playwright and screenwriter Lucy Prebble. The two previously collaborated on ITV 2’s Secret Diary of a Call Girl (2007-11), and on Prebble’s 2012 stage play The Effect.
Though Piper isn’t Suzie – just as Coel wasn’t Arabella in I May Destroy You, and Phoebe Waller- Bridge wasn’t Fleabag in Fleabag – I Hate Suzie invites us to speculate upon the parallels. Like Piper, who in 1998 became the youngest musical artist to enter the UK pop charts at number one, Suzie Pickles has been famous since the age of 15, when she sang her way to victory on a TV talent show.
Like Piper, an early star of the BBC’s revamped Doctor Who (2005-), Suzie has appeared in a beloved science-fiction franchise that has secured her a permanent place in the hearts and fantasies of genre nerds.
And like Piper, Suzie now does mature work seen by far fewer people, but retains the downside of mainstream fame: the prurient attentions of tabloid press and online gossips. Here, those constituencies are sent into a frenzy when a data leak makes public a photo apparently showing Suzie engaging in a sex act.
The first two episodes of I Hate Suzie muddy the origins and meaning of this incendiary image, first by focusing sympathetically upon Suzie’s misery and panic, and then by showing us a less prepossessing side of her, inviting us to reconsider any emotional investment we were thinking of making.
News of the data leak breaks when Suzie is engaged in a different form of humiliating image-manipulation: a preposterous photo shoot at her home, at which media hipsters snark at her taste, flaunt their ignorance of her work and generally make it clear they think she’s over the hill.
Initially, Suzie looks set to be a comically put-upon, essentially lovable character in the Bridget Jones mould; but Prebble, Piper and director Georgi Banks-Davies undermine this impression even as they build it. For isn’t Suzie a little more manic than even an embarrassing photograph would warrant? Is her husband Cob (Daniel Ings) pleasantly long-suffering, or is there a bit of an edge between them? Why is no one having a straight conversation about anything?
The sense of Suzie’s reality as a rather more extreme and panicked place than initial impressions suggested is affirmed in Episode 1’s final sequence, which sees her striding away from her country pile (Cob having abruptly changed the locks), in her full pretentious photo-shoot get-up of real fur coat drenched in fake blood, cursing everything out loud. In one further brash juxtaposition of the real and the false, music swells and this showbiz kid briefly breaks into song.
The ironic musical is another route teased but not taken, however, as Episode 2 grounds us back in reality – albeit a sour and snippy version thereof. Representing her sci-fi hit Quo Vadis at a fan convention, Suzie unsuccessfully tries to shrug off the sex pic story, before taking solace in a druggy bender with a fellow actor (Dexter Fletcher). Her stern manager Naomi (Leila Farzad), set up thus far as something of a voice of reason in Suzie’s life, joins in – and we see that whatever was happening in that photo may be no anomaly, but the tip of an iceberg of bad behaviour.
While the specific circumstances and dramatis personae of that one shot remain obscure, it’s evident that, in terms of her private behaviour staying private, Suzie has been on borrowed time. The people around her, meanwhile, are no better. The sheer nihilism we encounter here repositions I Hate Suzie a good distance away from the confronting but morally engaged territory of I May Destroy You and Fleabag, and far closer to the unsparing ‘cringe comedy’ of Ricky Gervais, Larry David, and HBO’s Succession (2018-), on which Prebble is also a writer and co-executive producer.
That I Hate Suzie is rather higher on shock moments and general nerviness than on actual jokes won’t please everyone. Neither its atmosphere nor Piper’s vivid but stagy performance are easy to relax into. What does feel provocative and interesting, in an entertainment moment somewhat besotted with narratives of victimhood and responsibility, redress and redemption, is the spectacle of a female character engaging in dissolute and depraved behaviour for which – thus far – she seems distinctly disinclined to atone.