WATCH CLOSELY: “Fleabag” — Sex and the City of London
Fleabag is a clever, frenetic, and coolly smart series, balancing humor with an increasingly dark intensity.
By Peg Aloi
We can all agree there is simply too much to choose from on television these days. The problem is that there are so many high quality shows it’s impossible to watch them all. The latest industry scuttlebutt is that HBO, the original purveyor of quality extended mini-series (what we now simply call a series), is planning to emulate the Netflix model and introduce a number of shows on a constant basis. So get ready for even more choices and even more angst over deciding what to watch.
Some TV streaming services recommend shows based on your previous viewing. The photo accompanying the link to the BBC series Fleabag is a white woman’s face, her eyes looking troubled, her mouth a grim line, her cheeks smeared with eye liner ruined by tears. It looks a bit like an ad for a horror movie, but the brief description suggests that the program is meant to be funny and clever. Those conflicting impressions drew me in. This six episode series (which premiered in 2016 and is soon to debut its second season) begins with its main character (nameless but for the moniker “Fleabag,” played brilliantly by actress/comedienne Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who adapted her stage play for the series) looking into the camera. She is whispering urgently to viewers, asking them to identify with her predicament. She just got a text message from a guy she likes (known as “Arsehole Guy,” for crude but funny reasons TBA) at 2 a.m., on his way home from a bar. He wants to know if she is at home; she has to act as if she has also been out clubbing (instead of asleep in bed). She gets up, showers, puts on makeup and drinks a half bottle of wine. As the two engage in boisterous sex she continues to speak or direct facial expressions to the camera by way of commentary.
The ‘confiding to the viewer’ gimmick would seem to get old fast. But, as the storyline progresses, you realize this is the only way this particular story could be told — by way of a constant, and brutally intimate, running commentary. Fleabag is a fascinating tease of a protagonist; she reveals things when she’s good and ready, and, sometimes, she realizes too late that viewers see things about her she wishes they hadn’t. Fleabag is horny, angry, neurotic, manipulative, witty, and, it turns out, deeply troubled. She’s broke (she owns a cute but unsuccessful café), sloppy, obsessed with sex, and judgmental of everyone she encounters. She delivers a steady stream of hilarious and sometimes shocking asides as she moves through her day. London’s landscape is utilized in interesting ways, with train cars, cemeteries, parks, and various shops and cafes providing backdrops for Fleabag’s antics and musings. She flirts with strangers, insults and overcharges customers, and steals flagrantly.
We get the sense that some of her intimates know her secrets, like her wealthy, vain sister Claire (Sian Clifford of Midsomer Murders), who’s married to a creepy American art dealer (Lemon’s Brett Gelman) and has her own insecurities to cope with. Their mother died when they were young, and their distant father (Scottish character actor Bill Paterson) married their godmother (the excellent Olivia Colman, soon to be seen in The Favourite with Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone), an artist whose own sexuality is front and center in her work and her interactions with others. Then there’s Boo (Jenny Rainsford), her best friend and previous co-owner of the café that Fleabag now runs on her own. We learn early on that Boo died accidentally when, feeling despondent over a cheating boyfriend, she stepped into the path of a bicycle. Frequent flashbacks show the pair’s playful, loyal relationship and, disturbingly, the bike accident is referred to frequently. Fleabag often nearly collides with moving vehicles because’s she’s not paying attention. As we learn more about the circumstances of Boo’s death, this loss plays a large part in explaining why Fleabag is so self-destructive and misanthropic. Yet she is not without compassion; when she realizes her sister is grappling with a sad and unhealthy marriage, she does her best to offer support. Call it karma, but Fleabag’s shallow relationship with the truth hides a deeply honest nature, and people don’t tend to extend her the integrity she oddly enough seems to deserve.
Fleabag is a clever, frenetic, and coolly smart series, balancing humor with a dark intensity the continues to grow. Still, the show never deviates from its irreverent buoyancy, even when it dips into territory that provides serious emotional revelations. At the close of the first season, Fleabag has a new set of problems to deal with, but also (perhaps) some new survival skills and allies. It remains to be seen if this complicated yet shallow, cruel yet kind, woman will move forward with her life in a positive way. But Phoebe Waller-Bridge and the rest of the cast are forging a journey that, I’m sure, will continue to be absorbing and scathingly funny.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film and TV studies for ten years at Emerson College, and currently teaches at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews also appear regularly online for The Orlando Weekly, Cinemazine, and Diabolique. Her long-running media blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com