As with converts to The Wire, The Sopranos or Game of Dragons, Breasts and Thrones, I’m apparently obliged to convince you how brilliant Fleabag is. And with only six episodes it’s (appropriately) much less of a commitment than those other shows. Everyone involved in the world of comedy seems to unanimously agree that Fleabag is the best TV show of the year, and who am I to disagree? (‘TV’ now meaning ‘online streaming services’, obvs; it’s on BBC Three so only exists on the iPlayer.) The reason Fleabag is so brilliant is that, like a lot of the best narrative comedy, it’s about so much more than being funny – but the framework of ‘comedy’ allows it to be far more profound than any ‘serious’ drama show could be. Here are some of my thoughts and feelings about it.
It is worth stressing that it is a comedy: it is often hilariously funny. The scene where the unnamed central character takes her clueless date to a sex shop to buy a vibrator (as a present for her sister!) will be the one everyone remembers, but there’s also the ridiculous ‘meditation retreat’ the sisters visit, and a scene involving Barack Obama that had me screaming with laughter. There’s also a satirical streak in a recurring joke that customers will accept paying £25 for one sandwich if you shrug and say “London!”
Some of the funniest moments come from the main character’s direct addresses to the audience. She looks at us and talks to us, filling us in on missing details or relaying her inner monologue, during scenes involving other characters – or even in the middle of sex. The ways these moments are used are so distinctive and multi-faceted that I feel like they merit a proper academic essay. (Don’t worry, this isn’t it.) On the one hand, they’re a great comic tool – a character asking “how did you meet him?” is followed by the viewer being told, “Fucked me up the arse,” before the character is given a, er, less detailed answer. The direct addresses also mean that we hear the main character’s private opinions – we hear things she’d never even tell her friends. We end up knowing her far better than any other character knows her; we even know her better than we may know some of our real friends. (Writer and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge has written about this here.) Simultaneously, however, the looks to camera remind us it’s a TV show. Don’t worry, it’s just pretend. Not that serious. Given the show’s underlying themes of loneliness and failed attempts at intimacy, these ambiguous looks to camera, simultaneously inviting us in and estranging us, are central to the whole show.
I’ve mentioned it a few times already, but it’s worth pointing out how upfront the show is about sex. The very first scene is the aforementioned arse-fucking, and moments like this are treated as unremarkable in terms of the action. Of course the characters have sex and masturbate, and so sex is not the be-all and end-all; it’s just as funny or serious or boring as anything else that happens. This is undoubtedly part of the show’s feminism (all the male characters, incidentally, are useless – either stupid, hopelessly repressed, creepy or bastards without even realising it – while the women might also be awful, but at least they’re trying to cope and know their own minds). Sex is also important for Fleabag as one of the central themes is (women’s) bodies – even if you have nothing else, you always have your body. You can always do what you want with your body, if not money or emotions. (Other people’s actions notwithstanding.) An unanswered question is what happens when even your own body turns against you – the central character’s mother dies of breast cancer, and her own bodily urges make her do things that she doesn’t necessarily ‘want’ to do.
Fleabag is brilliantly written, with a lot of subtle plot threads that aren’t fully explored, and some great acting too. Waller-Bridge is no doubt going to be flooded with offers to make all sorts of projects now, but Olivia Coleman is also a lot of fun playing against type as an utterly loathsome evil stepmother, and Sian Clifford is excellent as the central character’s sister Claire, who has a lot more to deal with than it might at first seem. Claire’s hidden trials suggest the ultimate message of the show: everyone is struggling. All the characters just about manage to hold it together. Everyone we meet through the series is a fuck-up in some way. No-one is ‘coping’, they are just managing. And thanks to those looks to camera, that includes us too. You, the viewer, are no better off than any of the characters. Don’t pretend.
Fleabag is about loneliness. It’s about that deep loneliness that you can feel even if you’re surrounded by people, even if you’re in the middle of having sex. It’s about the profound loneliness that some of us have so rooted inside us that it feels like it will never, ever go away, no matter what happens. It’s about that (very) late night feeling when you should give up and stop drinking and go home but you don’t want to because it doesn’t feel like you’ve got a home to go to. It’s about having to live with yourself when you’ve done things you deeply regret, and when everyone you know is useless, horrible or barely getting by themselves. Fleabag gives the lie to all those idiot comedians thinking they’re doing ‘dark’ material by making jokes implying they’re paedophiles or whatever. The sense you will never be fine, that the best you can hope for is getting by, that you are, ultimately, totally alone in the world. That’s dark, you idiots.
It look me quite a while to watch the whole series of Fleabag as I had to psych myself up to watch each episode. It’s tough going. It made me do a lot of thinking and feeling and gave me a lot to mull over. It is hilariously funny as well, though, honest. You owe it to yourself to watch it.