exit interview

‘We Only Ever Talk About It in Terms of What Makes Us Laugh’

I Hate Suzie Too co-creator Lucy Prebble dissects Suzie Pickles’s latest breakdown.

Billie Piper in I Hate Suzie Too. Photo: HBO Max
Billie Piper in I Hate Suzie Too. Photo: HBO Max

Spoilers for I Hate Suzie Too below.

I Hate Suzie, the darkest and funniest TV series about what it’s like to exist at the center of the maw of pop culture, is back for its second season on HBO Max, now with more dancing. The British series imagines a relentlessly narcissistic funhouse mirror version of its star Billie Piper as Suzie Pickles, a B-list celebrity constantly trying to please a public that always finds a way to hate her. In the first season, nude photos of her with a man who is not her husband are leaked on the internet, leading to the collapse of her marriage and life in general. In the second, an “anti-Christmas special” dubbed I Hate Suzie Too, Suzie tries to make a comeback by joining a reality TV series called Dance Crazee (a version of Britain’s popular Strictly Come Dancing), while engaging in a custody battle with her ex-husband. The three-episode season, as whip-smart and lacerating as ever, depicts the ways in which Suzie must perform authenticity for the cameras and her lawyers, culminating in a final episode that plays out the filming of the Dance Crazee Christmas finale in real time. As Lucy Prebble, writer and co-creator of I Hate Suzie with Piper, puts it, “The show is trying to look at femininity in the way that a lot of art has previously looked at masculinity: What is it like? What does it mean? What’s horrifying and funny about it?”

How did you decide Suzie’s attempt at a comeback would come in the form of a reality dance competition?
Billie and I had separately come up with the idea of a performance Suzie was in. I was thinking of a West End play because I’m from the theater. We talked about Cassavetes’s Opening Night and rewatched it and then realized it had already been done — and Larry David had also done a season of Curb Your Enthusiasm with The Producers riffing on that. Then Billie said, “What if she entered a dance competition?” She had already been saying she wanted to do more dancing in the first season. It’s a great idea, because you can compliment the anxiety of the show, which can be oppressive, with something more joyful and light. As a performer, Suzie is at peace when she’s dancing. When we filmed the sequence where Suzie walks out on stage in the red dress in the finale and lies down, I remember shouting at Billie, “You’re happy! Be happy!”

How much time did you spend working out the rules of Dance Crazee?
I got obsessed with trying to make the show within a show work and all the details of the icons and the voting. Because I’m quite online, if something doesn’t look real, it really takes me out of it. Writing the final episode was really difficult, because we’re following her in real-time onstage and backstage. It was hard to think of where everyone would be and what would be happening. It made me think of how easy screenwriting is normally, where you can just cut to the next thing you’re going to see.

The season opens with Suzie in clown make-up, doing this dance that’s quite avant-garde for broadcast television. How did you come up with that?
It was described in the script as a good dance that might have masochistic undertones. In a Flashdance way, it’s experimental and creative. The clown stuff came from Billie. Costume and makeup is very much where she has control in the show. You realize she’s trying to completely disguise her sexuality, because that’s what she’s punished for in season one. She’s also trying to disguise her femininity, and people hate it, because women aren’t really supposed to be clowns. Clowns are scary or funny; in patriarchal terms, we don’t like to think of women as scary or funny. Also, it made me laugh so hard being on set with Billie in that costume, because everything she did was funny. If we were discussing something in the trailers about scheduling, she would just be standing there as a clown.

Meanwhile, Suzie’s engaged in this custody battle with Cob, which requires its own performance — of good motherhood, in this case. What interested you about pairing this public display with something so private?
Billie and I were interested in the difficulty of work and parenting. When you’re in your 40s, as we both are now, the number of divorces goes way up. In your 20s you go to weddings, in your 40s you support through divorces. There’s a sadness to the way you turn the other person into a monster in that process, and I was interested in writing about that and how Frank’s experience as a child ends up being about seeing his mother at a distance, as a figure of fame and performance.

In the divorce she’s presenting herself to be the best mother possible to a panel of people judging her, which is exactly what she’s doing on the reality show. With social media and all that, we live in a world that operates according to a points-based system about so much of what we do and say, and that’s going to have an impact on Suzie. And in a comic way, she’s obsessed with how people want her to be, while the advice she gets is always to be herself. That’s the trap she’s caught in as a mother, a woman, and a performer: How do you best portray authenticity, if what they only want is an “authenticity” that’s acceptable?

That all gets caught up in Suzie’s hair color too. She starts the season off brunette then goes blonde, and then at the end, she’s lost all her hair.
That was always going to be a big theme. I’m really interested in the way that, in a much more massive way, women and hair is such a political issue, as in Iran. In the show, it started from a place of thinking about wigs and performance and getting excited about the idea that femininity often has this sense of change. There’s the Madonna thing where you reinvent yourself. The stupid joke she says when they tell her the audience doesn’t like her having gone brunette: “But it’s my natural hair color. Well, it’s dyed, but it’s my natural hair color.” That’s something I have said in the past. Almost all femme cis women I know of my age dye their hair, but dye it close to their natural color. That’s so amusing as a trope of femininity: It’s me, it’s real, but it’s just slightly better. Once I thought of that joke, I thought it would be fun to have her continue to change her hair and that could overlap with something else. There was also Britney Spears’s relationship and history with her hair as an inspiration.

There’s a similar attempt at performance in Cob having shaved this season, and in him shaving their son’s hair without telling her.
Your hair as a method of control was something I was really interested in. Sometimes it’s self-control. Both Cob and Suzie intentionally change their hair between seasons, her with dye and him with his facial hair, because it’s a way of feeling back in control of your life after a breakup. It’s a cliche, but it’s significant.

Naomi, meanwhile, is trying to take control of her own life by attempting to become a mother via IVF, while being drawn right back into all of Suzie’s chaos.
That started from a comic place of talking with Leila Farzad, who plays Naomi, about what she would be doing with her life after season one. We joked that she would have had a great time seeing her family in Iran, but a lot of it would’ve been staying in an apartment she’d AirBnb’d watching Netflix, quite similar to what she would have done at home. Then, we decided on a notion that Naomi would end up doing for Suzie what she’d done as an agent anyway and just not get paid for it. There’s something truthful about that in codependent relationships: They both get something out of it. Naomi gets a facsimile of control over Suzie. It’s not dissimilar to the relationship Billie and I have as a writer and an actor: I might have control because I’m writing what she says and does, but she’s more famous and more powerful as the face of the show. That’s a dynamic agents and actors have too.

Because Suzie so closely resembles Billie’s real life persona, do you two talk about how audiences might assume things about Billie reflected in whatever the character does?
I hope the tone of the show tells you how playful we’re being. It’s very cheeky, especially in Britain where she is more famous than in America. You think you know this about Billie Piper? Here’s an artistic rendering of that. But we only ever talk about it in terms of what really makes us laugh. We think, so Suzie goes on a dance show, and then we chat and laugh and think of the most vulnerable things and because we have a dark sense of humor, that tends to spiral into stuff. Then I go away and write the scripts, and then we talk about the scripts and then I go away and write more. By the time I finish the scripts, I don’t feel much relationship between Billie and Suzie as people because I’ve done so much work imaginatively. But I appreciate that there’s mischief in the way we’re nudging at things.

There’s an aside where Naomi mutters to Suzie’s family that they need to turn off the motion smoothing on their TV. Do you have any guiding principle of what the comedy you’re aiming for is?
That’s just what I do around anybody’s house, it’s my immediate first question! But the humor comes out of a lot of stuff, especially trying to get in the stuff you see people saying in real life all the time that you don’t see onscreen. I’m weirded out by television shows where people don’t talk like they do in real life. So I’m always aiming for that. But in that case, I was so distressed by the idea that people would have motion smoothing on when they watched our show. There’s so much fluidity in our shots. I subconsciously wanted to remind them to check their TV.

Did you always conceive of this season as being framed as a Christmas special, or rather, an “anti-Christmas special”?
Some of it was practical, in terms of scheduling and all that. But there’s also a tradition in the UK of doing three- or four-hour things over the course of a week, particularly with Dickens or Agatha Christie. I did think it would be funny to do something very not that, very contemporary and aggressive, but in the same shape. It’s something to watch with your partner or on your own, rather than with the whole family. I also think Christmas is a great undercurrent for this show, because it’s a combination of smiles and glitter and bonhomie and pain and suffering. That custody battle is something a lot of people go through at Christmas. It might make people feel weirdly less lonely to see a bit more of that onscreen.

Have you considered doing another season of I Hate Suzie after this?
I’m not in the place where I’ve thought of something. It was quite a grueling and difficult schedule doing this season and I’m on Succession now, which is a massive and difficult project, so I need to take a break and think of what I want to do next creatively.

Are there things you learned on that show you’ve brought from working on Succession to I Hate Suzie, or the other way around?
I learned a lot from Jesse Armstrong about being a showrunner. He’s very good at that and surprisingly relaxed and compassionate. But also, very particularly with Succession, I learned to always start from the truth, rather than starting from what would be exciting to happen. Succession taught me that everything benefits when it’s funny. We work so hard on having funny alts. We arrive at the shoot every day with other jokes and lines we can feed the actors, even when the initial scene is working well. I love that rigor. Jesse taught me that you can be serious and weighty and tragic, and the way you get people to listen is to also be funny. That’s stayed with me.

Was there a moment on I Hate Suzie Too that you had to work really hard to find the right joke like that?
My favorite moment in the whole show is where Suzie is having a breakdown in the final episode and she looks down the barrel of the camera from the stage and realizes Naomi isn’t there. She says, “I’m so proud of you, your boundaries!” Suzie’s devastated, but she does the very female friendship thing of going, “but you’ve done really well!” It’s so sad but so funny.

The season ends with the ultimate punchline, cutting to a TV test pattern with an image of Suzie holding a blackboard and then drawing a dick on it. How did you decide that would be the final image?
I don’t know if Americans will understand that! It must be quite confusing. The idea was that at the end of the last episode she has a psychotic break. You move between what’s going on with her internally and what’s actually happening externally. But I thought, “I don’t know how to end that.” If you end with her being carried off the set by these guys, that leaves the audience in a distressing palace.

So, in Britain since the 1930s there was something called a “test card,” which is what came up when television was finished for the day or when something unexpected happened. It was this young girl with a blackboard. It’s a familiar image for me and most British people. It really made me laugh to imagine that interrupting the show, because it’s a theatrical metaphor for us cutting the camera. Whenever children are near a blackboard they draw a dick pic, and the first season is very interested in what the image of her with a penis does to her whole life. It has a playful aggression to it.

‘We Only Ever Talk About It in Terms of What Makes Us Laugh’