The moment that Suzie Pickles finds out that intimate photos of her have been hacked and leaked online, her world starts to spin. Certainly in the metaphorical sense, as her marriage to her husband, her relationship with her young son, and her status as a pop star/actress on the verge of even bigger fame are all plunged into uncertainty. And as she looks at the breaking news on her cell phone, the camera framing her starts to pitch and sway.
Over the course of an eight-episode season, “I Hate Suzie” looks at multiple prongs of the aftermath of this breach of personal privacy. Suzie (Billie Piper) tries her best to reclaim any sense of sure footing, while those telling her story — both the in-show entertainment apparatus and the team behind “I Hate Suzie” itself — each do their best to reframe what we know about this woman who now finds herself in a tornado of chaos.
It’s a premise that could easily be the set-up for a multi-cam sitcom, but Piper and writer Lucy Prebble (co-creators of the series) recognize this as a story with deeper consequences. Under the kind of pervasive media scrutiny that permeates her every interaction, Piper and Prebble show how Suzie is gradually stripped of her own power and the often-disastrous consequences of her trying to regain autonomy over her own life. Over time, “I Hate Suzie” settles into a dark comedy-tinged approach that mirrors how Suzie sees her own life unraveling. She’s at times confused and furious and determined and regretful, but every once in a while, she catches herself laughing in spite of everything that’s happening.
The show gives Suzie the space to try to move forward without ignoring the life-changing scandal hovering over her head. Even as that happens, the show peppers in the knowing looks from passersby. As strangers recognize her in public, whether they feel sorry for her or think ill of her, there’s the crushing weight of seemingly everyone knowing Suzie’s secret.
So Suzie tries to take solace away from the spotlight. That involves repairing trust with her husband Cob (Daniel Ings) and her oldest friend Naomi (Leila Farzad), who also happens to be her agent. Mending one relationship and drawing on strength in the other becomes its own careful set of intertwining duets. Making room for both and showing the tumult in each of them, “I Hate Suzie” becomes a richer character study. Over time, as Prebble spools out more information about what they’ve all experienced together, it underlines the fact that Suzie isn’t the only one caught in this unexpected web of sudden public attention.
Each episode gets its title from a different stage in the grief/trauma cycle. As Suzie watches the life she once knew disappear, that separation manifests itself in some different stylistic approaches. Preserving that episodic feel, each new day takes on its own shifting genre shape. Georgi Banks-Davies, who directs a majority of this season’s episodes, dips into horror stylings, taking on some of the layers of a paranoid thriller elsewhere. None of these drown out the series’ consistent throughlines, but they do underscore how volatile Suzie’s unfolding situation becomes.
Those occasional flourishes are bolstered by the three central performances. Even as Suzie becomes more and more listless as different details behind the photos surface, Piper is a rock. This series only works if you can still empathize with Suzie as her choices swing from well-intentioned to outwardly destructive. Piper wears all of that inner turmoil, switching between Suzie’s celebrity persona and the Suzie with a corroding private life. After a bevy of strong supporting roles in both comedies and dramas (ah, “Lovesick,” gone but certainly not forgotten), Ings slots perfectly into playing someone who becomes a supporting figure in an emerging tabloid scandal. The gradual shift from understanding husband to someone exasperated by his own lack of control over his wife’s situation adds another dimension to the series.
Even if Naomi comes to realize how much of her life is spent tied to advancing Suzie’s career, “I Hate Suzie” takes the time to give her some narrative breathing room for herself. Naomi’s conflicted thoughts about having a family of her own don’t feel like an obligatory B-plot — Farzad’s even-keel approach makes Naomi an interesting live-action spin on a character like Princess Carolyn from “BoJack Horseman.”
For a show that revolves around one character desperately trying to move forward, “I Hate Suzie” is smart about how it includes the past. Dropping the audience right into the day Suzie finds out about the hack, there are plenty of chances to fill in the gaps of what we don’t know about her family, her colleagues, and her previous path to stardom. Sometimes this plays out in economically dispatched flashbacks, other times in hallucinations brought about by a bender. However those details surface, it allows “I Hate Suzie” to be as impulsive as Suzie, only to much more productive ends.
At each point in the season when Suzie is faced with a pivotal decision, part of what makes “I Hate Suzie” fascinating is that both paths forward for her seem plausible. For every self-destructive leaning, there’s an equally viable route that won’t erase her past mistakes altogether, but at least will be a step towards alleviating the damage they’ve caused. That this show can present both options and still generate understanding for Suzie — regardless of where she goes next — is an effective trick to pull off.
“I Hate Suzie” is now available to stream on HBO Max.