The Unbingeable (or, Saying no to Netflix)

Curator's Note

In the ninth episode of Michaela Coel’s critically-acclaimed drama I May Destroy You (BBC One/ HBO, 2020), ironically titled “Social Media is a Great Way to Connect,” Arabella (played by Coel), an up-and-coming writer whose claim to fame is her debut book, Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial, takes to social media to encourage sexual assault victims to speak up and share their stories. As she struggles to piece together what happened to her during a night in which she was drugged and raped in a London bar, Arabella assumes a public persona of a vocal, judgmental crusader, becoming gradually more aggressive both online and offline. Shortly after finding out that the police closed her rape investigation without arresting any suspects, her downward spiral bottoms out in a drunken live stream where she encourages her social media followers to publish the personal information of their attackers, a controversial strategy called “doxing.”

Despite Arabella’s commitment to drawing attention to very real issues by employing the “hashtag activism” popularized by the #MeToo movement, her posts fail to communicate the ambivalence, grief, and confusion resulting from her sexual assault.[1] Dozens of likes and heart emojis later, Arabella finally calls the emergency line and is able to meet her therapist, Carrie (Andi Osho), who strongly recommends that her distraught patient quit social media. When Arabella insists “it’s important that [sexual assault victims] speak,” Carrie responds: “The business models of these networks incentivize us to behave in certain ways. In ways that promote speaking, often at the cost of listening.” She then reminds her of the “three R’s” mentioned earlier in the show, when Arabella started therapy following her assault: “Rest, Reflect, Rejuvenate.”

“If you can’t abandon it altogether, take a break,” Carrie suggests in a soft voice. When Arabella groans and rolls her eyes, her therapist continues, “We take breaks. We don’t work weekends. We break for half-term. Even a cantor has a sabbatical. And it’s good for our mental health.”

Drawing on Coel’s sustained attacks on binge-watching during the PR campaign for her show, I wish to read this dialogue targeting social media as inviting viewers to reflect more broadly on their relationships with their screens. Coel is not the first creator to reject the drop-release model popularized by Netflix.[2] Other leading figures in the television industry, from Damon Lindelof to Joss Whedon, have voiced similar concerns.[3] However, in I May Destroy You, Coel offers a more sustained and complex exploration of the unbingeable by incorporating the three Rs into every layer of her creative process.

I May Destroy You explores consent, sexual trauma, and healing by following the stories of three working-class Black British millennials: Arabella, Terry (Weruche Opia), and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu). Coel wrote the series’ twelve episodes, during which each of the main characters is forced to struggle with complex questions of consent after being sexually assaulted, as a way to process her own rape.[4] While most television shows about sexual violence feature white victims, I May Destroy You explores the intersection of sexism, racism, and homophobia by detailing the friendship between three Black Londoners.[5] It depicts complicated situations where consent is given based on information or impression later proven to be partial or false, blurring the lines between attackers and perpetrators.

In her reading of Coel’s work, Caetlin Benson-Allott suggests that it “explores healing as much as it does trauma. Its elliptical, associative approach to narrative mimics the a-linear process of recovery, while its broadcast schedule allowed viewers to appreciate how victims become survivors.”[6] Benson-Allot refers here to a feature of Coel’s deal with BBC One and HBO. Netflix, which drop-released Coel’s debut series, Chewing Gum, in 2016, reportedly offered her a million dollars for I May Destroy You, but she instead chose to work with BBC and HBO in order to retain creative control over production and distribution.[7] Based on their agreement, BBC One broadcasted two episodes per week from June 8 to July 14, 2020, while HBO aired one episode per week from June 7 through August 24. While Coel explained her rejection of Netflix’s offer as pertaining to copyrights, she also framed it as a denunciation of binge culture.[8]

By doing so, Coel rejected the cultural logic of seamlessness and autoplay on multiple levels, reshaping industry standards. As the show was partially based on her own sexual trauma, the notoriously demanding shooting schedule was carefully designed to ensure Coel got eight hours of sleep, could take time off when needed, and had time for walks, meditation, yoga, and on-site therapy.[9] Coel is not the only female or queer-identified creator to push against the stressful demands of ever-shrinking network deadlines in the age of the streaming wars, but her consistent, public effort to reshape production to enable rest and reflection invites a reading of I May Destroy You through the framework of the unbingeable, both as a spectatorial mode and as a mode of production. Cripping industry standards, this temporality emphasizes calibration, collective work, and rest as alternatives to the temporality of compression and accumulation associated with bingeing.

True to the three Rs, I May Destroy You offers its viewers twelve episodes that can function as separate, stand-alone stories. Instead of luring us with cliff-hangers, dark secrets, or increasingly violent scenes, each episode is a self-contained narrative that leaves us with food for thought rather than with open questions to be answered by continued engagement. Jumping back and forth in time, including an episode that mostly takes place during Arabella and Terry’s adolescent years, the show imitates the nonlinear process of healing from sexual trauma.  

This opens up the possibility for viewers to reflect and slow down in a show exploring the cultural and social demand pushing its characters to heal by neatly following and publicly enacting the seven stages of grief. Both in the show and in Coel’s real life, the rapist was never caught, preventing the possibility of closure and challenging one of the most common tropes in police procedurals and true crime dramas: the idea that justice, even if delayed, will eventually be served. As one of Arabella’s friends tells a sexual assault survivors’ support group in episode six, “One in every two women is a survivor, yet eighty-nine percent of trials end in exoneration.”[10]

If bingeing obeys the capitalist logic of linearity, accumulation, and personalization, Coel’s refusal to embrace it germinates a deeper understanding of the weekly release model as potentially supporting serialized stories that explore difficult, disturbing, and complex storylines. In a 2020 interview with Louis Theroux, Coel once again stressed the need for rest and reflection, explaining that, instead of pitching or developing a new project, she lets herself grieve while indulging in what she half-jokingly describes as her “post-writum depression.”[11] Refusing to succumb to the relentless expectation of constant productivity, she described dedicating time to running, seeing friends, spending time with her family, and going to therapy. De-automating recovery, productivity, and creativity, Coel demonstrates how creators can push the streaming industry to rethink its profitable business model.

The unbingeable should not be confused with the unwatchable, a theoretical concept associated with art cinema, durational works, and films depicting graphic violence.[12] Instead, a show deemed unbingeable by its creator pushes us to reevaluate how interface design features like autoplay and Skip Intro might limit the kind of stories being told in serialized form. Without a week-long break between one segment to another, I May Destroy You might be too triggering or painful for some viewers. Coel’s public rejection of the drop-release model forces us to ask who should decide which spectatorial mode best serves serialized stories: the platform, the creator, or the viewer?


[1] For a close reading of this episode in relation to #MeToo, see Stephanie Patrick, “Afterward: Destroying the Cycle?,” In The Forgotten Victims of Sexual Violence in Film, Television and New Media: Turning to the Margins (Springer International Publishing, 2022), 225-241.  

[2] Nathan McAlone, “The creator of ‘Lost’ explains why he doesn’t like Netflix-style binge-watching,” Business Insider, April 2017.

[3] See McAlone, “The creator of ‘Lost’ explains.”

[4] Alex E. Jung, “Michaela the Destroyer,” Vulture. July 6, 2020.

[5] As summarized by Stephanie Patrick, “the rape experiences and testimonies of racialized characters in much of popular culture are often sidelined in favor of focusing on the effects of such violence on white, middle-class, thin and able-bodied women and their allies (usually progressive white men).” See Patrick, “Afterward.”

[6] Caetlin Benson-Allot, “How I May Destroy You Reinvents Rape Television,” Film Quarterly (2020) 74 (2): 100–105.

[7] Coel didn’t rule out working with the streamer in the future, but said that, when it comes to a drama about power and exploitation, “it felt odd that that [sic] a streaming service would demand 100% of my rights while I was directing, starring and writing the show, so I didn’t do it.” See Desiree Ibekwe, “Michaela Coel: ‘TV is unforgiving - but I’m built for this,’ Broadcast Now, 8 June 2020.

[8] Ibekwe, “Michaela Coel.”

[9] Ibekwe, “Michaela Coel.”

[10] See I May Destroy You, E1 E6, “The Alliance.” For an analysis of how binge culture reshaped the representation of sexual violence, see Julia Havas and Tanya Horeck, ‘‘Netflix Feminism: Binge Watching Rape Culture in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Unbelievable,” in Binge-Watching and Contemporary Television Studies, ed. Marieke Jenner (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2021).

[11] Louis Theroux, “Episode 11: Michaela Coel,” Grounded with Louis Theroux, November 30, 2020.

[12] For a historical and theoretical analysis of the unwatchable, see Nicholas Baer et. al., eds. Unwatchable (Rutgers University Press, 2019).   

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