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Friendships have been captured on television for years, but two recent British limited series — Russell T. Davies’ It’s a Sin and Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You — portray the intimacy and adventure of these relationships with the same levels of fascination as their more romantic counterparts. They succeed at it by forgoing grand gestures for quieter moments, observing the particularities of a relationship with nuance and specificity before exploring how they shift, morph or potentially collapse in the face of trauma.
Friendships rely on a common language — a phrase, a gesture or a facial expression. Should a member of the group stray too far, get lost or become subsumed by isolation, that expression can pull them back into the fold. For the crew on HBO Max’s It’s a Sin, the language is a simple, melodic note: “la.” It appears at the end of the first episode, when Ritchie Tozer (Olly Alexander), Roscoe Babatunde (Omari Douglas), Colin Morris-Jones (Callum Scott Howells), Jill Baxter (Lydia West) and Ash Mukherjee (Nathaniel Curtis) decide to rent a flat in London. It’s 1981 and they affectionately call the space, which will see them through the first decade of the HIV/AIDS crisis, The Pink Palace. Jill, their spirited and most maternal member, leads the charge on the first morning in the group’s new place. As aspiring actor Ritchie heads to meet an agent, Colin to his job at the tailor and Roscoe to the bar he helps manage, Jill sings them the note and eagerly awaits their reply. It’s a sacred moment, a ritual that confers upon them safety and an armor as they head into a violent world.
The phrase repeatedly pops up throughout the five episodes in the series. As AIDS infiltrates their apartment and wreaks havoc on their bodies and their spirits, the “la” anchors the friends and viewers to the hopefulness of those early moments. In the third episode, as Colin sits in the infectious disease ward of a hospital, slipping in and out of a dementia-like state, he is surrounded by his mother, Roscoe and Ash. Ritchie and Jill walk in and intone, “la!” The group sings back a bit more mournfully, and Colin’s mother, in a surprising turn of events, joins. “See, he taught me,” she says excitedly.
On HBO’s I May Destroy You, friendship hums in the background, singing a similar tune. The bond among Arabella (Coel), Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) runs deep, as shown through a shorthand that builds and sustains intimacy. The 12-episode series charts the aftermath of Arabella’s rape — an experience that alters her relationship to herself and those around her. Terry is the first to notice that Arabella is acting differently. In the second episode, when Arabella starts to piece together the fragmented images of the night a stranger spiked her drink, Terry makes sure she gets some sleep. “Where’s your head scarf?” she asks as Arabella climbs into bed. The question, like the “la” in It’s a Sin, gestures at a particular vulnerability and softness these Black women feel safe enough to show with each other — a sharp contrast to the outside world. It’s Kwame, at the end of the same episode, who accompanies Arabella to the London police station where she reports her rape. Before the detective walks in, the camera settles on Arabella resting her head on Kwame’s shoulder before the detective asks: “Who’s this?” She responds simply, “Kwame,” the one who holds her as she cries, internalizing the weight of her assault.
While Arabella’s journey is central to the show, some of I May Destroy You‘s most fulfilling scenes are when the three friends share the screen. Their language shifts during these hangouts as they flit between their English accents and their West African-inflected ones. The former conveys pain, anger and sadness, while the latter is reserved for joy. During a party in the seventh episode, Arabella, Kwame and Terry briefly convene in the kitchen, trying to plot a love match on behalf of a reluctant Kwame. “Isn’t he,” Arabella teases, “your type?” Kwame, trying not to be amused, adopts a distinctly Ghanaian accent, one that reminded me of the one my mother put on when she was no longer in the mood to entertain a line of inquiry. “OK, OK, go and serve,” Kwame jokingly says to Arabella while handing her a plate of food.
Moments like these, abundant in It’s a Sin and I May Destroy You, are nuanced portrayals that acknowledge how friends become chosen family while avoiding the trappings of over-sentimentalizing them.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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