Billie Piper Is Even More Stunning

There was no reason to assume that a second season of I Hate Suzie, the television equivalent of a depressive dissociative episode, would be an easy watch. For as bleakly comic as Season 1 of actress/co-creator Billie Piper’s masterwork often was, the show balanced its humor with an unflinching, unrelenting darkness.

But I Hate Suzie Too, as the black dramedy’s HBO Max return is called, purports to be a Christmas special. A Christmas special about Suzie Pickles’ (Piper) stint on a dancing competition show, no less. What fun! What joy! Good tidings to all!

Alas, there is no fun, nor joy, nor good tidings to anyone to be found here. And I Hate Suzie Too is brilliant for it—for once again painfully, beautifully leaning into the deleterious effects of unprocessed trauma.

The three-episode season opens on the first of Suzie’s outrageous dances, performed live for the TV audience of the Dancing With the Stars-esque show Dance Crazee. She’s found herself here more than six months after Season 1’s end—which aired nearly two years ago now. Season 2, thankfully, offers a helpful recap of what happened before we begin: Suzie, an actress on a popular sci-fi show, awoke one morning to find her life had suddenly come crashing down. Her extramarital affair has become tabloid fodder after her intimate photos leak, throwing everything she’d worked for into jeopardy.

The show wrangled a hilarious, harrowing story about self-destruction and mental illness out of Suzie completely flubbing her chances at saving everything important to her. She loses her TV job, husband, beloved son, and tether to reality.

The series sees the return of child star turned actress Suzie Pickles.

Tom Beard/HBOMax

Which is why Suzie decides to do reality TV instead of therapy. In Season 2, she tries reviving her career by participating in Dance Crazee’s Christmas competition. No, Suzie isn’t much of a dancer—but she is determined to make her family proud by winning the whole show, while shutting up her naysayers too.

But that first dance we see isn’t a creative expression of the rejuvenated, refreshed soul that we want for Suzie, following last season’s heartbreaking spiral. Instead, she performs primal choreography, crawling on the floor, thrashing about as if finally unchained. In a way, she recalls a female Pierrot, the sad clown: Dance Crazee outfitted her in poorly applied clown makeup, a black bodysuit, and a demeaning giant bowtie to boot. And Suzie’s Pierrot is in desperate need of her mood stabilizers.

Billie Piper and Leila Farzad in I Hate Suzie Too.

Tom Beard/HBOMax

Instead, we learn that Suzie continues to struggle in her personal life. Months later and newly divorced after her marriage rapidly disintegrated in public, Suzie now lives with roommates. She’s lost primary custody of her beloved son, Frank, and can only see him on a limited, supervised basis. She’s had to replace her former agent/best friend, Naomi, with a much less patient woman. And, to top it off, she is pregnant.

In a much more conventional show, Suzie’s unwanted pregnancy would provide an easy way to propel the narrative. A woman pregnant with her ex’s baby is a classic conflict—but I Hate Suzie is inspiringly subversive, unmoored by these traditional TV storytelling expectations. Hardly 15 minutes into the season, we watch Suzie take a pill to induce an at-home abortion. She wears and removes bloody sanitary pads as she spends untold time on the toilet. She cries silently in the bathtub afterward. She is alone, completely.

To do away with such a story frees up the season to explore Suzie’s other anxieties, as well as her grief and mental illness. Against the hilariously obnoxious tableau of the Dance Crazee competition, defined by Suzie’s chaotic choreography and the hilarious push-and-pull with the skeptical production crew, the show takes a manic-depressive tack. When she’s off-stage, the show trades stage lights with drab fluorescents in claustrophobic, backstage hallways, discomfiting guest rooms, and hyper-artificial interview sets. It’s a successfully jarring, constant shift, emphasizing the show’s descent into madness.

Billie Piper as Suzie Pickles.

Tom Beard/HBOMax

Because that is what will befall Suzie. Season 1 made that clear: This is a woman whose quest for stardom is ill-fated, doomed by her unsatisfied need to be loved by people who are not good for her. For as good of a mother as she is to Frank, Suzie is best defined by her failures. It’s what makes her such a compelling character, made even more so by Piper’s stellar performance.

Piper inhabits a woman constantly on the verge of a breakdown, imbuing her with a sense of unsteadiness that feels authentic, thrilling, and a little horrifying. It’s hard not to laugh at her as she clowns around with a plastered smile, bobbing and weaving between “I want to bury into a hole and die” energy and reality show, talking-head posturing. But it’s also easy to pity her at the same time.

There is no Christmas cheer to Suzie’s dance competition stint, when everything in her life continues to crumble around her. But this anti-Christmas Christmas special is better for it—especially as it crashes toward its disturbing finale.

I Hate Suzie Too is much more constrained than its predecessor, in part because of its more limited runtime. But it is not short of unforgettable moments, each one palpably anxiety-inducing, as Suzie craters toward her overdue psychotic break. (One unyielding scene, where Dance Crazee arranges a messy Pickles family gathering to be filmed for the show, is so stressful that you can almost feel the show’s pulse quickening.)

There is no show this holiday season more heart-wrenching, gutting, and gut-busting in such equal measure.

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