By Zac Terry
I Hate Suzie sees popstar-turned-actor and director Billie Piper star as a celebrity whose life is just as chaotic as day-to-day life can often feel. The series follows in the wake of hit dark comedy-dramas with powerful female leads, including Fleabag and I May Destroy You.
Piper dazzles alongside a compelling array of supporting cast, weaving a twisted web of insights and conceits through the series’ eight instalments. There is no concrete ‘good’ or ‘bad’. This is a frenetic and complicated overlaying of ‘stages of grief’ for one person as their life begins to unravel. It is a testament to the powerful writing of Lucy Prebble. She captures Suzie’s relationships and her attempts to hold things together in all their messy reality. This undermines our relief that we are not ‘Suzie’ with the pervasive feeling that our lives in some way resemble hers.
An integral part of this storytelling is Piper and Prebble’s unflinching enthusiasm for authentic narration of women’s experiences. Piper has referred to her awareness of societal messaging stipulating the necessity that women ‘“have it all”’ whilst ‘striking a balance’. She has moved against this ‘golden’ imaginary by being ‘honest’ about the reality of being female. This certainly comes across both in her directorial debut with film Rare Beasts, and in her portrayal of Suzie. Prebble has highlighted a desire to avoid the ‘“Strong Female Character”’ trope by writing a protagonist “who is essentially cowardly […] passive […] and fragile“. Prebble and Piper’s commitment to break down false narratives provides us with a protagonist whose traits are worrying, yet deliberately familiar.
The creative decision to confront real life on a psychological level is another aspect of Prebble’s writing that shines through in Piper’s honest performance. In one instance, we watch Piper, as actor Suzie, perform a character’s gruesome death. This is plays out an unhealthy power dynamic, as Suzie quits her acting role and cuts ties with her director-cum-lover to please her estranged husband. Another moment sees Suzie lose herself when she becomes frontpage news, angrily shouting at driver in a Britney-esque moment. Yet another moment sees Suzie coldly reprimand her young son for causing the death of his pet rabbit. All these moments, whilst difficult to watch, are important reminders that our lives are always balanced on a knife’s edge. Life is fragile, and we are always that one step away from losing the things we take for granted.
As Rachel Aroesti indicates, the drama’s interest in psychological unravelling marks a trend in female-led serials looking to ‘humanise’ their female protagonists. In this respect, the fallibility of Suzie finds parallels with recent comedies such as Starstruck and Gameface. The success of these shows demonstrates a thirst for exploring the impact of societal pressures on mental health. It also shows a real desire to see female protagonists who do not necessarily fit in with certain expectations, which makes them inherently more relatable.
At the same time, these dramas and comedies are clearly traversing new ground. Several critics have highlighted that this focus on honest representation comes at a time when female creatives have been given ‘unprecedented levels of authorial control’. The achievements of I May Destroy You and I Hate Suzie at the BAFTAs clearly shows the novelty of this female creative energy. In the wake of the MeToo and BLM movements, these works have been produced during an intersection between cultural and political change.
Nevertheless, women still face undeniable barriers in TV production. Despite the tangible hunger for authentic female narratives, Prebble disclosed that she struggled to get I Hate Suzie commissioned. Broadcasters gave the reason that they ‘“already have our woman-having-a-breakdown show”’. She believes that this blindsided attitude exposes ‘a systemic’ inability to see value in “anything other than white, middle-class, male viewpoints“. We do not need to look far to evidence this opinion: I May Destroy You was snubbed at the Golden Globes in favour of Emily in Paris this year.
Popular enthusiasm for TV series that champion authentic narratives, and a push from female creatives to broaden supply for captive audiences, can only be positive. However, more needs to be done foundationally to allow for more diverse voices in front of and behind the screen. We need more shows like I May Destroy You, I Hate Suzie, Gameface and others. It is through these cultural works that we can encourage societal progress celebrating life in all its colours and complexities, whilst undoing the work of normative expectations.
If you like TV that challenges your views of others and your own self-conceptions, yet also makes you laugh out loud and captivates your attention, then I Hate Suzie is perfect for you. Hopefully Piper and Prebble have paved the way for more TV shows that can be simultaneously all these things and more. Only time will tell…
Illustration: Verity Laycock