[This story contains spoilers for I Hate Suzie Too.]
When it premiered in that year of the years, 2020, I hate Suzie was the opposite of feel-good TV. Actress Suzie Pickles’ (Billie Piper) tight, fear-fuelled decency when a phone hack sent her dirty laundry out and her career imploded ended with a woman seemingly at her lowest ebb.
But it can always go lower. That’s why the 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 recurring demons as she attempts to restore her public image. Things go as well as can be expected, with a denouement that comically cringes and serves as a mirror to viewers likely guilty of cheating on the celebrity meltdowns of yesteryear.
Lucy Prebble, the playwright, screenwriter and frequent Piper collaborator (Secret diary of a call girl), wrote all three episodes – all of which are currently streaming on HBO Max in the US and NOW in the UK. Succession where she writes and produces, Prebble talked about increasing the fear, what she wanted to say with that shaved head scene, and how she’d really appreciate more Americans tuning in to her and Piper’s passion project.
The term “chaotic” feels overused in our current culture, but I think you may have created the most chaotic show on television.
I’ll take it! Yes, oh God, it’s chaotic. I’m actually not much of a chaotic person. I would say Billie is, so it’s about creating a very structured chaos. That final episode, which attempts to be as real-time as possible, took quite a bit of that. It was very theatrical, like a model box, so the chaos is somewhat designed. But it’s a very special atmosphere, isn’t it? My writing is always fast. Nothing I do can be done slowly. Add Billie’s sensitivity and attention span… I always write with her in mind. It must have a constant emotional punch and viscerality. That leads to a kind of chaos.
So much of this show is spent with the camera fixed 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 feel like there was less of it – this kind of very anxious, chaotic, subjective stuff. So probably I don’t want to do it again. It feels like this is the pinnacle because I don’t know how much more emotionally available and intense you can be.
Why did 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’ve talked a lot about people like John Cassavetes, whose work is often very close, especially with his female actors. It’s also the gift of Billie and I being very close as friends. I can write things for her that might be a bit more demanding than I would write for other actors. Because I know her so well, I know her face can take it.
There’s almost one Black mirror quality to the celebrity dance competition that anchors these episodes. Do you think of this show’s world as our own — or as a little more skewed?
When I started writing this season, I was pretty frustrated. I kept calling Billie: “No, it’s not working. I just write people talking in rooms. I just came out of the last season of Succession, writing from a more rooted, naturalistic place. There are certain things we do Succession where we move away from the visceral almost intentionally. Sometimes we call it more or less pejoratively “soapy” or “messy,” deliberately making choices that feel surprisingly understated. I’ll say something about that [writers] room, “Yeah, let’s make it a lot of gray.” There’s quite a bit of gray in it, Successionwhile Suzie is primarily colored and usually red.
The Black mirror comparison, which I recognize, I think because it’s inspired by technology and the online experience – especially the first season. The online experience, made up of many different things, aggressively manipulates your time. Sometimes I think we find things weird, absurd, or experimental because they’re so close to our experience…or at least very close to my experience. I live online quite a lot.
I consider you a Twitter person. How do you navigate the shifts there?
It’s kind of sad… and inevitable. I recently saw Leonard Cohen’s documentary [Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song]. It starts with all this fascinating footage from the 60’s and New York, then the last 20 minutes are… Shrek. That song, “Hallelujah,” was eaten up by our culture and turned into this animated, capitalist thing. Social media feels like it’s on that journey, the inevitable capitalist journey of everything. What I loved most about Twitter was finding out what a crazy person everyone is. And now it’s exactly where I’m going to say, ‘I worked really hard on this TV show. I’m going to announce it.” Now it’s just a marketing tool, which I’ll be leaving very soon simply because it’s embarrassing to spend time there right now. I’m sure something else will emerge.
But maybe I’m done with it.
Me too. It’s kind of like when you stop going to nightclubs. I’m fine with not going to nightclubs anymore. I don’t wish they didn’t exist. I don’t blame anyone for going. But I don’t really go there anymore, and that’s fine.
Back to Suzie, the culmination of all this chaos in the character’s life is her revelation, on live TV, that she has shaved her head – before moving on to what can only be described as a breakdown. I suspect the Britney Spears parallel was intentional?
Very bad, but it’s a combination of things. What really appealed to me, the idea of our experience of that, at the time, was these photos that were completely devoid of context. You’re encouraged to immediately think, “Oh, my God, she’s lost her mind.” I don’t claim to know the details, but my hunch is that there were several factors that would have led to that decision – that would have made more sense if you had been aware of it. I was interested in a story that gave you some of that context. Look, it’s still a huge shock, but it also makes a lot more sense now that I know how we got there.
Her too! It’s all so funny and horrifying to me – so challenging. When we talked about what would happen if you did what she does on television, we all thought they would turn off the cameras. She’s having some sort of breakdown, there’s no question about that. But the physicality of a woman who has lost her hair is very specific and frightening to us culturally. I’m just really interested in why that is. This has been a year that has shown us a lot about that — whether we’re just thinking about Amber Heard’s representation or, on a much larger, more important scale, what’s 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.
Yes. You know we don’t like working, but this is ridiculous, isn’t it? (laughs.)
Do you like this as an epilogue?
I don’t know at the moment. I wasn’t sure we wanted to continue after the first one, which was pretty self-contained. And then this idea came up, the dance competition, which was really compelling. My answer is a bit boring: there were schedule and availability issues. But to begin with, we talked about All that jazz – something of a more cinematic form. The idea of it being something that had that sweep was really appealing, rather than a lot of separate episodes. And there is a real Christmas tradition [in the U.K.] watching a little over a week – in two, three or four parts. That is very common here.
I’m curious about the kind of conversations you’ve had with your executives at HBO Max. This is what you’re doing Successionthe brand’s crown jewel, but then you have this passion project that’s similar to some of the shows we’ve seen disappearing from the platform unnoticed.
What kind of conversations will 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 all over the industry. You can see it. You’re just trying to kind of fight to be good artistically and to hopefully make people think you’re doing a good job. This is a show that I’m really proud of, and not many Americans have watched it. I really, really want more Americans to watch it.
Before I let you go, pass me a vague sentence Succession season four.
More of what you like, and more of what you hate. I watched part of an early episode yesterday and I said to Jesse [ Armstrong], “This may not be bad.” That’s high praise for British people! So, Succession…maybe not bad.