In the opening scene of “Fleabag,” a wildly original and just plain wild tragicomedy from writer, director and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge, a young woman turns directly to the camera and describes her preparation for last-minute sex on a random Tuesday morning. Her breathless explanation is both amusing and quietly revealing — even while seeking her own pleasure, she is putting on a performance, for her partner, for us and even for herself. This woman, only referred to as Fleabag, will give plenty more performances before the series ends.
Fleabag’s day-to-day life is defined by chaos — she runs a failing café, chafes under the expectations of her overachieving sister Claire (Sian Clifford) and despises the budding romance between her dad (Bill Paterson) and godmother (a pitch-perfect Olivia Colman). Fleabag is constantly haunted by memories of her best friend Boo (Jenny Rainsford), who accidentally on purpose killed herself. Fleabag’s most dominant obsession is sex, and she damages relationships, both romantic and otherwise, with her tendency to turn the most mundane situations outrageously sexual.
“Fleabag” may sound like yet another show about a lost twenty-something, but the series quickly establishes its own formidable voice before going in some delightfully unexpected directions. This is largely thanks to Waller-Bridge herself, who excels at disorienting viewers both as a writer and performer. Even the most sordid punch lines land, partly because the jokes are so well crafted and partly because Waller-Bridge sells them with such easy charm. On screen, she exudes a natural glamour, both beautiful and unapproachable.
As in the first monologue, Fleabag often addresses the camera directly, offering either a quick observation or a bemused glance. She provides the kind of candor that the other characters cannot handle, and the audience becomes a sort of confidant, like a best friend reveling in devilish gossip over brunch. This device could be hackneyed or laborious, but it fits perfectly in “Fleabag,” giving clever insights into Fleabag’s actual feelings. It also feels weirdly astute about life in the social media age. Like an avid live-tweeter of “The Bachelor” or an especially adept finsta user, Fleabag analyzes her own experiences in real time, quickly packaging raw emotion for mass consumption.
While “Fleabag” begins as a raucous sex farce, Waller-Bridge slowly unearths dark edges in Fleabag’s story. Soon, Fleabag’s irresponsible behavior and bizarre attitudes about sex feel more pathological than winningly roguish. Fleabag treats sexual experiences like some people treat “Sharknado” movies — sometimes it’s so bad it has to be good. But Waller-Bridge is unafraid to examine the unsettling implications of Fleabag’s behavior and draws smart parallels between female characters that all have their favorite forms of self-punishment. The series quietly turns into a trenchant character study that is both unflinching and empathetic.
To Binge or Not to Binge
From the first episode, “Fleabag” establishes a distinctive point-of-view and commits fully to its own twisted worldview. The humor is not for everyone — Waller-Bridge loves a pitch-black punch line and a bit of shock value — but for me, it hit the perfect balance, cutting but never cruel. “Fleabag” feels distinctive from typical sitcom fare — the editing, from Gary Dollner, establishes an appropriately off-kilter visual rhythm, and the screenplays are deceptively literary. (Waller-Bridge based the series off her own play of the same name.) Plus, fans of “The Favourite” can see Olivia Colman in a very different, but still thoroughly entertaining, performance. She just won a million awards, and she should win a million more.
Unfortunately, the ending of “Fleabag” is not as effective as the material before it. The final scene’s underbaked ideas about redemption feel especially glaring compared to the spiky, specific writing elsewhere in the series. After building to a satisfying climax, the final minutes sputter — it makes sense to have a shaggy conclusion, but I was hoping for a gut punch.
Still, “Fleabag” is well worth the effort, especially because, at six short episodes, it can easily be devoured as an afternoon snack (maybe like some salted caramels or jalapeno-flavored chewing gum). At one point, Fleabag says, “I have a horrible feeling that I’m a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.” She’s probably right. May we get 20 more TV shows with characters just like her.
While later episodes go in some interesting directions, the pilot is a remarkably assured episode of television, immediately establishing the characters, developing the show’s core themes and including some truly hilarious scenes to boot.
“Girls,” “Catastrophe,” “Killing Eve,” “I Love Dick,” “Insecure,” “Chewing Gum” and “Casual”
“Fleabag” includes strong language, explicit sexual content, nudity and references to suicide and sexual assault.
The second season of the series is currently airing on BBC, but it is unavailable to stream in the U.S.
4 out of 5 stars
Available to stream on Amazon prime
6 episodes, about 2.5 hours total