|Phoebe Waller-Bridge in BBC3's Fleabag, now available on Amazon.|
It’s become something of a cliché, when talking about the contemporary TV landscape, to semi-seriously lament the proliferation of half-hour shows that, while ostensibly comedies, aren’t actually funny. One of the fundamental distinctions of the format of a television episode is that half-hour shows are comedies, while episodes that run the full hour (allowing, of course, for commercials) are traditionally dramas. But the emergence of shows like Transparent and, to some degree, Louie have eroded that distinction, leading to a profusion of programs that, well-written and well-acted as they might be, present themselves as comedies when they often stay closer to the dramatic side of the ledger.
One of those many half-hour shows to fly under the radar is Fleabag, a six-episode series from British playwright Phoebe Waller-Bridge that ran on BBC3 last year and is currently available through Amazon. The primary difference is that, unlike its fellow sort-of-not-really comedies, Fleabag is often riotously, scathingly, filthily funny. The show’s an adaptation of Waller-Bridge’s play by the same title, and she also stars as the title character (her odd moniker is a nickname; as with many of the other characters in the show, we never learn her real name).
The show’s distinctive sense of style begins with Fleabag’s constant asides to the audience, which almost accomplish the same effect as Rami Malek’s addresses to the viewer in USA’s Mr. Robot, albeit without the sense of self-seriousness that ultimately brought that show down in its second season. The device starts out both amusing and useful, as it lets Waller-Bridge’s character bring us up to speed on the other people she’s meeting and their various relations to one another. After a while, though, her tendency to constantly glance at the camera, or to quickly voice a thought that’s in her head, begin to feel superfluous; in one scene that begins with Fleabag going to meet her sister, Claire (Sian Clifford), Waller-Bridge announces, “She’s here!” when we can already see Clifford onscreen. Still, the direct address pays off in a few carefully placed revelations in both the first and final episodes, when we learn new information that significantly alters our perception of Fleabag and her current predicament. At these moments, Waller-Bridge turns the device on its head, showing us how her glib, conspiratorial camaraderie with her unseen listener suddenly curdles into self-consciousness and shame.
|Sian Clifford and Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag.|
As for Fleabag’s aforementioned predicament, it involves her grief over a number of recent deaths that have sent her into a spiral of bad behavior, including sleeping with too many questionable partners, drinking too much, and letting the tensions with her family and especially her stepmother (Olivia Colman, who’s excellent in what I thought would otherwise have been a rather unsympathetic and underwritten role) creep towards an eruption of open warfare. Grim as that situation may sound, it makes for some hilarious (albeit dark and often dirty) comic moments. The opening scene of the show involves some graphic sexual material that’s nevertheless handled with finesse – it would have been easy to make the show some lazy combination of the most crowd-pleasing parts of Sex and the City and Girls, but Waller-Bridge is operating on a much higher level, and the sex scenes help to round out her character. (Indeed, they ultimately prove to be central to understanding her.)
Some of the supporting characters come off a touch too broad and cartoonish, even when they’re played by solid actors. In addition to Colman’s role, there’s Brett Gelman and Hugh Skinner, who are stuck in roles (Fleabag’s disgusting brother-in-law Martin and her on-again-off-again boyfriend Harry, respectively) that come off as two-dimensional and somewhat implausible. I kept waiting for Waller-Bridge to pull a Louie-style reversal and reveal some of the other facets of their personalities that would further explain why Claire and Fleabag tolerate their presence, but it never arrived.
On the whole, however, most of the characters are both well written and acted, especially Clifford’s Claire. She occupies the role of the uptight older sister, a familiar enough type from countless TV shows and movies, but both Waller-Bridge’s writing and Clifford’s performance give her much more depth than that. Both actresses have a knack, honed onstage, for subtle shifts in expression: Waller-Bridge can keep her face frozen in a mask of contentment while various horrors unspool in front of her eyes, while Clifford achieves some miniature comic masterpieces with Claire’s awkward physicality, most notably in a deeply uncomfortable yet nonetheless loving hug that ends Episode 5. There’s a somewhat similar moment late in the show’s final episode with Bill Paterson, who gives a quiet but suggestive performance as Fleabag’s dad.
If Fleabag is a comedy about dark topics, it’s also a show that uses humor in a very specific way. It cuts through the sentimentality and melodrama that a lesser show might layer thickly over the title character’s situation, but it also serves to cover up some of the genuine hurt that she’s feeling. Unlike a show like Girls, which dared viewers to keep sympathizing with its self-absorbed and frequently hateful characters, Fleabag is a nuanced portrait of a woman trying to come to grips with serious concerns about personal loss and grief. That it so frequently achieves that aim through uproarious comedy is a testament to the strength of Waller-Bridge’s vision.
– Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for WBUR's Cognoscentipage and HowlRound. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.