Billie Piper’s face has its own microclimates. Her smile can grow sunny even as her eyes fill with barely held-in tears; her brow can furrow in anger even as she lets loose a bright laugh; her mouth can turn down in a frustrated frown even as her eyebrows melt into an expression of pure love.
All of which makes it the perfect canvas for I Hate Suzie, a show that invites its viewers to consider that people — and women in particular — are complicated as hell, and there’s no one way to feel about anything, no single emotion that can lead to simple pity or simple blame. Co-created by Piper and Lucy Prebble (who is also a writer and co–executive producer on HBO’s Succession), the Sky Atlantic series follows fictional British celeb Suzie Pickles (Piper) through the fallout that ensues when the most private parts of her life are thrust into the public eye. Though it’s been getting plenty of well-deserved buzz in the U.K. since it premiered last August, the series debuted stateside on HBO Max in November to little fanfare. That’s a shame, considering that I Hate Suzie is arguably one of the best shows of the past year.
Told in eight parts, each named for a stage of grief (“Shock,” “Denial,” “Fear,” etc.), I Hate Suzie is the story of a woman who’s spent her whole life defined by others and who, in her mid-thirties, is only just beginning to think about how she might define herself. At a cursory, unsympathetic glance, Suzie could be called “difficult”; but the series asks us to meditate on the possibility that this particular trope is a function of a society that implicitly demands that women do backflips to accommodate everyone’s needs but their own.
Prebble and Piper have been collaborators for more than a decade. Prebble created ITV2’s 2007 series Secret Diary of a Call Girl, which starred Piper as a high-end sex worker juggling the demands of her double life. Piper also starred in Prebble’s 2012 play The Effect, which was nominated for a pair of Olivier Awards. It’s clear from the naked vulnerability on display in I Hate Suzie that there’s a great deal of trust between the two, as well as with directors Georgi Banks-Davies and Anthony Neilson.
The first episode finds Suzie reeling from the revelation that photos of her having sex with an unseen man (who is most definitely not her husband) have been leaked to the U.K. tabloids. The camera follows Piper’s expressive face in claustrophobic close-up as she grapples with the situation in real time, all while a camera crew is in the midst of staging an elaborate publicity shoot at her house. It’s a situation that’s simultaneously hilarious and horrifying, as Suzie reels from room to room putting on a brave face for the camera crew while her husband Cob (Daniel Ings) flies into a rage in the front yard, her young son Frank (Matthew Jordan-Caws) struggles to understand what’s happening, and her manager/best friend Naomi (Leila Farzad) runs interference.
By the end of the pilot, Suzie is strutting through the quaint streets of her small English town in runny makeup and a fur coat stained with fake blood, belting a musical-theater song about how much she hates provincial life and throwing a middle finger at the heavens. This first half-hour sets the tone for the fearlessly intimate and painfully funny episodes to come, audacious in both their stylistic experimentation and their willingness to lean into the most uncomfortable, messy parts of the human psyche.
In the vein of other series in which the creator is also the star (Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag and Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You come to mind), I Hate Suzie draws from Piper’s own life experiences without being fully autobiographical, using worlds the actor-writer is well versed in as a jumping-off point for a story that feels deeply authentic. Piper got her start as a tween pop star (her single “Because We Want To” made it to the top of the U.K. Singles Chart when she was only 15), and kicked off her career as an actor at the age of 23 with her fan-favorite role as Rose Tyler on the 2005 revival of Doctor Who. Suzie, meanwhile, breaks big as a child with her performance on an X-Factor–esque singing competition show, and later stars in a beloved sci-fi series called Quo Vadis (which translates, fittingly, to “Where are you going?”).
“Where are you going?” is the question of the hour for Suzie, who finds herself bending over backward to appease everyone but herself: her family, her lover, her fans, and the casting agents who hold her career like an eggshell in their hands. The show doesn’t let Suzie off the hook; she fucked up in the past and continues to fuck up. Rather, it forces us to grapple with the duality of a person who’s simultaneously wronged and in the wrong, who does all of her husband’s emotional labor and then turns around and expects her best friend to do hers. Episodes shift among styles — horror, domestic drama, wry comedy — representing Suzie’s efforts to find the right genre to tell us (and herself) the story of her own actions.
The series’ standout episode, “Shame,” takes us inside Suzie’s mind during the course of an extended masturbation session. Suzie flips through a Rolodex of sex fantasies in an attempt to bring herself to climax without falling deeper into the guilt of her infidelity. In between, her mental projection of Naomi interjects to interrogate and criticize Suzie’s dream hookups. “Everything you think is sexy is based on what men have told you is sexy for thousands of years,” not-Naomi observes. “What part of that do you think is about your desire, your lust? Where do you go to when it’s coming from you?”
Piper, who’s been steadily honing her acting chops in critically acclaimed stage performances and on shows like Secret Diary, Collateral, and Penny Dreadful, is a wizard in this show. She takes Suzie’s love, anger, embarrassment, fear, and desire and alchemizes them into a singular portrait of a woman spiraling toward something that’s a little like liberation and a little like oblivion. Ings is both charming and bone-chilling as Piper’s controlling husband, and Nathaniel Martello-White is a disarmingly warm presence as the showrunner of the sci-fi series Suzie is currently starring in as, yes, a woman who fights zombie Nazis. (I Hate Suzie is, among many other things, a cunning satire of the entertainment industry.) But the series’ breakout is Farzad, an Iranian-British actor appearing in her first major TV role. As Naomi, she’s more than a match for Piper, as the two tease out what is perhaps the series’ most complex and meaningful love story.
Though it’s anyone’s guess whether there will be a second season, one thing is for sure: The narrative of I Hate Suzie is a vital one, asking — and offering no clean answers to — necessary questions about what it means to be a woman in the spotlight, and the furious tap-dance female celebrities must perform in order to remain palatable to the viewing public. It’s not an easy show to watch, but it’s equally one that’s impossible to turn away from, as we become both witnesses to and participants in Suzie’s slowly unraveling disaster.
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