Painful Perfection: Review of the Tragicomic Series Fleabag
Here are the unique, and uniquely uncomfortable, elements of this amazing show.
Posted June 14, 2019
Breaking the fourth wall in her inimitable style, the titular character of Amazon and BBC 3’s comedy series Fleabag cheerfully announces in the second season premiere: “This is a love story.” How very true. I love the writing, acting and directing of this show. It puts the fun in dysfunctional, providing a window into the travails of a single, thirty-something, bisexual white woman trying to make a go of it in present-day London. I love its excruciating awkwardness, the tension tightly coiling as we watch humans say and do every day, truly awful things to each other, and the near orgasmic release when someone speaks the truth in word or action, sometimes in response to decades-long silences and thrice-told emotional lies. It’s uncomfortable, sad, maddening, and irresistibly funny. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, writer and star, has done it again, presenting perfect, painful comedy, somehow with even more bite and aplomb than in its inaugural run. Topics like traumatic loss, depression, anxiety, sexual etiquette and predilections, and harassment are successfully covered, though I was reticent to list them all here for fear of alienating potential viewers. The show contans adult treatment of significant subject matter, and nothing is presented superficially only to fade away by the next episode or by the end of the season. There’s a definite plan, with the writing demonstrating coherence, subtlety, and totality. Fleabag also serves up ample helpings of mainstay English culture: cold repression, simmering envy, and seething hot resentment. In the 2019 premiere, the depiction of these elements in tandem at a family dinner (the horror, the horror) is expert and I’ve never seen it done better. Fleabag’s sister and husband, and her father and would-be wicked step-mom (an exquisite Olivia Coleman, fresh off her Oscar win for The Favorite), have such toxic relationships, the opening scene calls to the family therapist in me, as well as to any audience member who knows that closeness can carry costs.
Here’s a quick rundown of unique, often uniquely uncomfortable, elements of Fleabag:
“Are you talking to me?” Fleabag compulsively turns to look at the viewer and shares side comments about what’s happening and what imminently may happen. These seductive tête-à-têtes are a bit manipulative, but we as the audience enjoy her dexterous manipulations. She explains just how she feels, as many of us wish we could in life’s most awkward, unpleasant, or uncomfortably intimate moments. The breaking of the fourth wall serves up her emotional experience for us to consume. We derive insight, and voyeuristic pleasure, from her wit and pain, though she’d be quick to deny that it hurts. This one-way “intimacy” serves a function for Fleabag. By sharing her innermost thoughts and feelings with us, she effectively removes herself from the intensity of those who can talk and clap back to her in her actual life. She shares her core with an audience that she cannot see, hear, or touch. In other words, it’s a literary device that really works, and packs an emotional wallop. This device never grew tiresome for me; in fact, I cherished the pseudo-intimacy so regularly offered.
“It’s filthy.” The language and subject matter are for mature audiences. Fleabag has a habit of merging with whoever is available to try to fill the black hole of loneliness inside. She has sex with the wrong people for the wrong reasons with frequency, alacrity, varying degrees of enthusiasm, and, in some instances, to disastrous consequence. My skin crawled during some scenes. It’s inappropriate, even blasphemous, in some scenes. All this to say this show is not for everyone. In keeping with the show’s premises, let me break the fourth wall right here: I don’t recommend this show to you at all. It’s just for me and other connoisseurs of quality writing. Don’t you dare watch it. Because you just wouldn’t understand….
“Tastes great, less filling.” Each episode is a commercial-free, 24-minute or so romp through a day with Fleabag (this is freaking Amazon, and the BBC, folks). There is no filler; it's lean, mean, blue, and raw, and often left me roaring with laughter, so much so that my family two floors down could hear me. It’s a show about family, but it’s not a family show. Phoebe Waller-Bridge works by the adage “Leave them wanting more.” And with six-episode seasons, you can binge through the whole series in an afternoon. But I chose to savor it like fine wine.
“Sister act.” Sisters are typically portrayed in film and television in one of two ways: close as best friends who (unrealistically) finish each other’s sentences, or as character foils like The Odd Couple. Impulsive Fleabag is a foil to the incredibly uptight Claire (Sian Clifford). They are so stuck in their dance that their interactions just hurt, coming across more like enemies when we first meet them. When Claire ventures beyond their usual dance steps to offer a tentative, tortured hug to Fleabag, the latter freaks out, effectively punishing the gesture. But by the fifth episode of season one, their relationship begins to demonstrate greater complexity and nuance. We see how much they’d like to be honest and vulnerable with each other, but their utter dedication to their survival strategy of orchestrating events and maintaining the upper hand renders a permanent rapprochement impossible. Sian Clifford is simply outstanding and deserves recognition for helping deliver a sibling relationship fraught with envy, jealousy, and strained, pained love. In fact, Phoebe and Sian are so good in their portrayal that this alone almost makes me wish for a third season. Almost…
“All good things…” Shakespeare wrote all good things must come to an end, but often in the world of television, bad things simply refuse to die. A show can drone on for 10 or 15 seasons as the same procedural week after week. If it feels like you’ve seen it before, it’s because you have, and you keep coming back for its promise of familiarity and predictability, just like comfort food, re-reading your favorite books, or watching reruns of some show that went off the air so long ago you’re embarrassed to admit that you still tune in. That’s not Fleabag. It serves up discomfort food, and it’s like nothing you’ve seen before. I’d like it to continue for a season or two longer but I also know this: season two ended perfectly. And though it’d be great to have shows like this to counterbalance the bloated, trope-filled, formulaic crap that attempts to pass as entertainment, I must give up my selfishness (and loneliness) for excellent programming, and acknowledge the creator’s integrity should she choose to let this show go out on the highest of high notes. I suppose I just must have faith that another show will be as original, creative, and outstandingly executed as this in the next decade or so. But I really don’t see how.