When we first meet Suzie Pickles (Billie Piper), she’s an angelic teenager wowing the audience in a singing competition show 20 years ago. In the next instance, we see her in a flurry of household activity in the present day; her husband Cob (Daniel Ings) and son Frank (Matthew Jordan-Caws) are attempting to enjoy a quiet breakfast when the house cleaner arrives, and Suzie rushes around manically to pick up what she can. Moments later, a crew of 20 or so people arrive for a photo shoot, complete with makeup, wardrobe, lights, and two dogs—essentially turning her home into a film set while she rushes to make tea (and, running out of mugs, makes an ill-fated attempt to put some in glasses). It’s a disaster, and as Suzie sits, flustered and covered in heavy makeup and borrowed clothes with a force smile plastered on, everyone’s phones start pinging. There’s been another celebrity hack, and Suzie’s nudes are all over the internet.
This chaotic energy rules I Hate Suzie, a UK series written and created by Lucy Prebble (Secret Diary of a Call Girl) airing in the US on HBO Max. Eight episodes take Suzie and viewers through the stages of grief, from denial and fear to guilt, anger, and ultimately acceptance. It’s not just about the nudes, but this is the moment Suzie’s life starts to unravel—primarily because one of the pics shows her with (as a throwaway line refers to it) “a penis of color,” in a shock to her white husband.
The real crux of I Hate Suzie, though, is that Suzie doesn’t know herself. That’s shown most effectively—and rather surprisingly—in an episode that focuses entirely on her trying to masturbate. Her thoughts are constantly interrupted by her best friend and manager, Naomi (Leila Farzad), manifesting within to tell her various ways these fantasies spotlight her emotional issues: that they are dictated by the patriarchy, that she’s trying to please others too much, that she has to stop focusing on the man she had an affair with and try and find her husband attractive again, etc.
If there haven’t been enough clues in this review so far, let me state that yes, I Hate Suzie is very explicit in a variety of different ways. Some are illuminating, some aren’t. But that’s the show: messy, ambitious, chic, yet ultimately a little shallow and out of focus. Suzie is a whirlwind of bad decisions and anger, and Billie Piper gives an astonishingly open performance (especially in storylines that, like Suzie’s experiences at fan conventions or on TV show sets, could easily be pulled from Piper’s own life). It’s Naomi, though, who really gets the most interesting narratives and hints at her character; unfortunately they’re rarely explored. And that’s the thing: occasionally I Hate Suzie hits upon real truths, but more often it glides past them to the next stylish or shocking sequence.
One scripting choice that really encapsulates all of this is that Suzie’s son Frank is deaf. Initially, she and Cob briefly use some sign language in communicating with him, but more often she shouts slowly at him (Frank always uses sign language). After that first inclusion, though, his deafness is essentially ignored or used as a tool of manipulation by his parents (in one scene they hide their mouths while arguing so he can’t lip read, for example). Frank’s silence is also translated as primarily sullen, and a shocking late-season act is glossed over in disturbing ways, as if Frank is unable to understand the implications just because Suzie doesn’t communicate with him well. In one sense, not calling attention to Frank’s deafness is normalizing it in an admirable way; it’s presented just as being part of their lives and not a focus. However, the casual way that Frank is ignored makes it feel like his character was written as a quirk, which is a problem. (This is especially true when compared to a series like The A Word, where a child’s disability and his relationships to others is a constant consideration, even though it’s not the focus of every scene or interaction).
Like I said, messy. But it’s a series that is also, occasionally, funny and revealing. There’s a moment where Suzie ponders the nature of true love, and realizes through a series of upsetting conversations that her thinking it was a husband or lover or women or friends or even her child was maybe not as she had thought. Wandering alone, she ends up singing some of the song that first catapulted her to fame. It’s not the fame that made her spin out though; her life is, all things considered, relatively normal. It’s that she has never known herself. Maybe that—rather than a reprieve from the fallout of the scandal—is the acceptance she ultimately seeks. If so, she still has a long way to go.
I Hate Suzie premieres Thursday, November 19th on HBO Max.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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