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[This story contains spoilers for I Hate Suzie Too.]
When it premiered in that year of years, 2020, I Hate Suzie was the opposite of feel-good TV. The taut, anxiety-fueled descent taken by actress Suzie Pickles (Billie Piper) when a phone hack aired her dirty laundry and imploded her career ended with a woman at, seemingly, her lowest point.
But things can always go lower. That’s why its three-episode follow-up, I Hate Suzie Too, takes place almost exclusively in the cultural sub-basement of celebrity dance competitions. There, Pickles battles naysayers, a vengeful ex-husband and her own recurrent demons while trying to rehabilitate her public image. Things go about as well as can be expected, with a denouement that is comically cringe and serves a mirror for viewers who’ve likely been guilty of rubber-necking over the celebrity breakdowns of yore.
Lucy Prebble, the playwright, screenwriter and frequent Piper collaborator (Secret Diary of a Call Girl), wrote all three episodes — all currently streaming on HBO Max in the U.S. and NOW in the U.K. Speaking over Zoom from London just before the holidays, while on a brief break from season four of Succession where she writes and produces, Prebble talked about upping the anxiety, what she wanted to say with that shaved head scene and how she’d really appreciate more Americans tuning into her and Piper’s passion project.
The term “chaotic” feels overused in our current culture, but I do think you’ve possibly created the most chaotic show on television.
I’ll take it! Yeah, oh God, it’s chaotic. I’m not a very chaotic person, really. I would say Billie is, so it’s about creating a very structured chaos. That final episode, which is attempted to be in real time as far as it’s possible, required quite a lot of that. It was very theatrical, like a model box, so the chaos is somewhat designed. But it’s a very particular vibe, isn’t it? My writing’s always fast. Nothing I do can be performed slowly. Add Billie’s sensibility and attention span… I’m always writing with her in mind. It has to have a constant emotional punch and viscerality. That leads to a sort of chaos.
So much of this show is spent with the camera fixed tight on her face that it really forces the viewer to experience the chaos.
For the viewer and the performer, yes. When we first started doing it in the first season, I do feel like there was less of this around — this sort of very anxious, chaotic, subjective stuff. So, I probably don’t want to do it again. It feels like this is the high point of it, because I don’t know quite how much more emotionally available and intense you can be.
What made you want to go there in the first place?
I was always interested in an internal experience, like you would get in a certain kind of novel — but on the screen. We talked a lot about people like John Cassavetes, whose work is often very close to the face, particularly with his women actors. It’s also the gift of Billie and I being very close as friends. I can write stuff for her that demands maybe a little bit more than I might write for other actors. Because I know her so well, I know that her face can bear it.
There is almost a Black Mirror quality to the celebrity dance competition that anchors these episodes. Do you think of the world of this show as our own — or as a little more askew?
When I started writing this season, I was quite frustrated. I kept ringing Billie up: “No, it’s not working. I’m just writing people talking in rooms.” I’d just come off the last season of Succession, writing from a more rooted, naturalistic place. There’s certain things we do in Succession where we’re almost deliberately veering away from the visceral. Sometimes we’ll sort of pejoratively call it “soapy” or “trashy,” where we’ll deliberately make choices that feel surprisingly restrained. Something I’ll say in that [writers] room, “Yeah, let’s gray it out a lot.” It’s got quite a lot of grays in it, Succession, whereas Suzie is primary colored and mostly red.
The Black Mirror comparison, which I recognize, I think is because it’s inspired by tech and the online experience — particularly the first season. The online experience, which is lots of different things, aggressively manipulates your time. Sometimes I think that we think things are weird or absurd or experimental because they’re so close to our experience… or at least it’s quite close to my experience. I live online quite a lot.
I do think of you as a Twitter person. How are you navigating the shifts there?
It’s kind of sad… and inevitable. I recently watched the Leonard Cohen documentary [Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song]. It starts with all this fascinating footage from the ’60s and New York, then the last 20 minutes is… Shrek. That song, “Hallelujah,” got eaten by our culture and turned into this animated, capitalistic thing. Social media feels like it’s on that the journey, the inevitable capitalist journey of everything. What I loved most about Twitter was finding out what a weirdo everybody is. And now it’s just where I go to say, “I’ve worked really bloody hard on this TV show. I’m going to publicize it.” Now it’s just a marketing tool, which I will very soon leave, simply because it’s embarrassing, really, to spend time there now. I’m sure something else will emerge.
I might just be done, though.
Me, too. It’s a bit like when you stop going to nightclubs. I’m fine not going to nightclubs anymore. I don’t wish they didn’t exist. I don’t resent anyone for going. But I don’t really go to anymore, and that’s fine.
Back to Suzie, the climax of all this chaos in the character’s life is her revealing, on live TV, that she’s shaved her head — before proceding to have what could only be described as a breakdown. I’m guessing the Britney Spears parallel was intentional?
Very much so, but it’s a combination of things. What really appealed to me the idea of our experience of that, at the time, was these photographs completely devoid of context. You’re encouraged to immediately think, “Oh, my God, she’s gone insane.” I don’t claim to know the details, but my suspicion is that there were various factors at play there that would’ve led to that decision — that would’ve made more sense had you known about them. I was interested in a story that provided you some of that context. Look, it is still a massive shock, but it also makes a lot more sense now I know how we got there.
Also, hair! It is all so funny and horrifying to me — so challenging. When we talked about what would happen if you did do what she does on television, we all thought they would switch the cameras off. She’s having some form of a breakdown, there’s no doubt about that. But the physicality of a woman who has gotten rid of her hair is very specific and scary to us, culturally. I’m just really interested in why that is. This has been a year that has shown us a lot of stuff around that — whether we think about just the representation of Amber Heard or, on a much bigger, more important scale, what’s been going on in places like Iran — where what a woman does with her hair is worthy of legislation.
Three episodes is a weird length, even by British standards.
Yeah. You know we don’t like to work, but this is ridiculous, right? (Laughs.)
Do you like at this as an epilogue?
I don’t know at the moment. I wasn’t sure whether we wanted to continue after the first one, which felt quite self-contained. And then this idea came up, the dance competition, which was really compelling. My answer’s a little bit dull: There were schedule and availability issues. But to start with, we were talking about All That Jazz — something of a more filmic shape. The idea of it being something that had that sweep was really appealing, rather than loads of separate episodes. And there’s a real Christmas tradition [in the U.K.] of watching something over a week — in two, three or four parts. That’s quite common here.
I’m curious about the kinds of conversations you’ve had with your executives at HBO Max. Here you are working on Succession, the crown jewel of the brand, but then you have this passion project that’s not unlike some of the shows we’re seeing disappear from the platform without notice.
What kind of conversations do I have with HBO Max? “Please, please, can we have some more money?” And then, “No.” (Laughs.) It’s really hard right now. The contraction is starting everywhere in the industry. You can see it. You just kind of try and fight to be artistically good and to have people hopefully think you’re doing good work. This is a show that I’m really proud of, and not many Americans have watched it. I would really, really love more Americans to watch it.
Before I let you go, give me one vague sentence about Succession season four.
More of what you love, and more of what you hate. I watched a cut of an early episode yesterday, and I said to Jesse [ Armstrong], “This might not be bad.” That is high praise for British people! So, Succession… might not be bad.
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