America might not be ready for Fleabag, the new Amazon/BBC series from British writer and creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Think about all the guff Girls received for “forcing” viewers along on a ride with myopic twentysomethings. Waller-Bridge has gone even further than Girls creator Lena Dunham, speaking directly to the camera no matter what she’s doing — having sex, texting photos of her vagina to old boyfriends, sitting on the toilet. For better or worse, you’re stuck with her as your guide to a life of mild depravity.
What started as a one-woman show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013 has transformed into a tightly wound, unapologetic send-up of sex, death, and family. The series follows Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag — a caustic character inspired by a real family nickname — as she mourns the death of her mother and best friend. As the name hints, we’re supposed to find her character ever so slightly disgusting — morally, if not physically. There are other egocentric nightmares in female-driven comedies, like Dunham’s Hannah Horvath or Mindy Kaling’s Mindy, but Fleabag is both thornier and more interesting.
Throughout its first season, Fleabag retains elements of its theatrical origins. Fleabag narrates the action around her, adding asides and rolling her eyes — gestures that only the audience can “see.” Sitcoms like The Office and Parks and Recreation played around with breaking the narrative frame, embracing character interviews, and documentary-like footage. While the BBC sitcom Miranda in the UK had its narrator, and Netflix’s House of Cards has the dour philosophizing of Francis Underwood, Fleabag stands alone as a raunchy, sarcastic narrator in charge of her own story.
Thanks to Waller-Bridge’s spectacular delivery, the device works. Her ability to snap in and out of the action, changing her facial expressions on a dime, is nothing short of masterful. She gives us the emotional cues — which range from contempt to self-loathing, glee to grief — her character is ostensibly too polite to voice aloud. At times the series even verges on the surreal, and Fleabag’s internal life mirrors her external one; a scene in which Fleabag’s fellow Tube passengers double over in choreographed pain, timed to a techno beat, seems to confuse even her. “I think my period’s coming,” Waller-Bridge finally tells the camera, as the show cuts to the opening credits. It’s daring for television, but put in the context of the theatrical, this kind of cold opening makes a little more sense. It’s also very, very funny.
Here’s hoping that Amazon’s other wonderful series about foul-mouthed Brits, Sharon Horgan’s Catastrophe, has paved the way for Fleabag‘s success. Unlike that show, though, Fleabag is steeped in grief. Where Horgan’s masterpiece mines humor from generally good people behaving poorly, Waller-Bridge turns her lens on bad or broken people struggling to behave after personal tragedies start to pile up.
Even with plenty of swearing, sex, and snide comments, Fleabag is, at its core, a British comedy of manners. It’s as if Waller-Bridge ran Downton Abbey through a high-speed blender, chucking in flavors from Miranda and the cult hit Black Books, until she arrived at Fleabag, queen of snark, and her upper-middle-class family. There’s a bumbling father (Bill Paterson), a perfectly passive-aggressive bitch of a stepmother (Olivia Colman) and a frigid older sister, Claire (Sian Clifford), who’s married to an asshole American art dealer (Brett Gelman).
In episode four, Fleabag and Claire try to suppress their grief about their mother’s death, but it bubbles up during a weekend stay at an oppressive, female-only silent retreat. “Think of it as a thought prison in your mind,” encourages the retreat leader, who is neither mean nor inventive enough to be a Roald Dahl villain, but is nevertheless a strong visual nod to Matilda’s Miss Trunchbull by way of Eileen Fisher.
The women meditate and perform menial labor across the massive grounds of the house. “What is this? I don’t even do this in my own home,” Claire erupts while polishing the parquet, earning shocked looks from her fellow attendees.”Oh, it’s very simple,” says Fleabag. “We’ve paid them to let us clean their house in silence.”
Never one to follow the rules, she eventually becomes distracted by disembodied male voices elsewhere on the property. “Sluts!” the mysterious men yell. “Yes?” she responds. It turns out there’s another seminar called “Better Man,” where men are encouraged to yell — to blow-up dolls — all the sexist, filthy things they think about women in order to get it out of their system. (“Good,” says the seminar leader in a soothing voice. “What should we not say when we meet her?”)
Then there’s the memorial luncheon in episode five, where Fleabag and Claire exchange veiled barbs with their stepmother. It’s one of the best depictions of British family dysfunction I’ve ever witnessed aside from Brexit, but that was — sadly — real life. On the surface, Waller-Bridge and her ensemble are all polite smiles, but the subtext is that almost imperceptible, absolutely frightening emotional evisceration the Brits do so well. Ten to one Olivia Colman’s deplorably selfish artist has taken her cues from Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess. If Colman’s character were even the tiniest bit lovable, she could give Smith a run for her money.
In the background of her larger family drama, Fleabag struggles with too many personal failures to count. She’s drowning in guilt over the recent suicide of her best friend and business partner, Boo (Jenny Rainsford), who haunts her memories as a reminder of happier times. To forget the role she played in Boo’s death, Fleabag turns to casual sex, picking up strangers on buses and in bars. “I hate myself,” she says, even as she allows an idiot with big teeth to think he’s won her favor. These are the men she takes home in between spats with her boring live-in lover Harry (Hugh Skinner), whom she manipulates and ignores in equal turn. Then there’s her failing business, the London café she runs with indifference and despair now that Boo has died. The customers who do wander in leech power for their laptops and phones without ordering so much as a cup of coffee. Fleabag tries to make up for the loss in sales by charging everything from £12.55 to £25 for the occasional sandwich. “London,” she shrugs. Her customers grumble but still pay.
With so much grief and anger seething under its surface, it’s a miracle that Fleabag manages to be so funny. The series is the more interesting for its commitment to mining the internal tensions between what people are willing to admit aloud and what they try to keep to themselves, especially young women under pressure to succeed in love and money. Fleabag fails the most spectacularly at this ruthless self-editing, and her narrated interruptions are a hilarious record of this failure.
Because her personality is driven by grief and defensiveness, Fleabag and her story always teeter on the edge of tragedy. She can’t quite let herself grieve for Boo, perhaps because she feels so responsible for her friend’s death. During a visit to the cemetery, Fleabag and Claire see a man wailing at a grave. “He’s a con,” Fleabag says angrily, over her sister’s objections. She’s seen him prostrated over multiple graves during her daily jogs. “You come here every day?” asks Claire with concern, and Fleabag avoids answering. You know she’s accusing herself of being a grief con artist, too — if not something much worse.