Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s fourth-wall breaking comedy ends after two seasons of hilariously blunt social commentary.
Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is a single woman living in London who is fond of drinking, sex, wisecracking her way out of her own misery, and being the subject of ridicule at the hands of others and, more commonly, herself. She runs a café that she opened with her deceased friend Boo (Jenny Rainsford), fights with her sister, Claire (Sian Clifford), deals with the sh*tbag that Claire married, Martin (Brett Gelman), and tries to tolerate the relationship between her widower father (Bill Paterson) and her Godmother (Olivia FREAKING Colman). In the second season, she begins to have a crush on her family’s Catholic priest (Andrew Scott).
I’ve mentioned before that horror and comedy are always related. They’re both our ways of dealing with the absurdity of reality, both are often based on showing us a deviation from expectation, and the primary difference is really whether we’re being cued to respond to the situation with revulsion or relief. This is why a comedy genius like Jordan Peele can be so good at horror or why John Carpenter can make a hilarious action-comedy like Big Trouble in Little China, because the genres are naturally separated only by the relief/revulsion response. This show frequently eschews that distinction and asks that we feel both. We should feel absolutely revolted at some of the things that are said and done to our lead in the show, as well as how often we’ve seen or heard them done to people in real life. The relief comes not just from the quip or hilarious face that Fleabag makes to the audience, assuring us that she’s fine, but also from the fact that someone is actually willing to say some of the stuff that this show is saying. I watched the entirety of this show with a woman and, to quote the Faceless Old Lady Who Lives on My Couch (and who did not get to select her pen name), the show is “the brutal comedy of everyday life.” I think that pretty much nails it, but more on that in a second.
While Fleabag’s life and her family and the people she encounters are all absurd, the absurdity is closer to a type of hyperrealism. You know some people who are similar to ALL of the characters, because they’re all “that girl/guy” archetypes. It’s made even more pronounced by the fact that, aside from Claire, Martin, Claire’s extremely creepy stepson Jake (Angus Imrie), and Fleabag’s overly-emotional ex-boyfriend Harry (Hugh Skinner), none of the recurring characters in the series actually has a name. Appropriately, though, those characters are, if anything, even more familiar archetypes than the others: The uptight workaholic/woman who married an a**hole and doesn’t leave him, the a**hole who somehow is still married, the creepy kid, and the guy who thrives on making sure everyone knows that he’s in touch with his emotions. All of these characters are played completely honestly with almost no other defining attributes, but the solid performances and great writing keep them from feeling tired. It helps that they’re only used sparingly (aside from Claire) and that the show is only 12 episodes long.
One of the keys to the show is the device of allowing the main character to directly address the audience through the fourth wall, but I have rarely seen a show play with it so well. It’s particularly interesting to see her fourth wall breaks when she’s dealing with the Priest, because his belief in a comforting higher power (God) gives him an insight into Fleabag’s belief in a comforting lie (the Audience), to a shocking and unnerving degree. Rather than doing the traditional fourth wall breaks, which are derived from Shakespearean soliloquies and thus given time and weight, Fleabag’s fourth-wall breaks are quick and often in the middle of conversations or even sentences, acting as quick punctuations rather than explanations. It gives the show a unique feel and the dialogue a distinct style and pacing.
Another big thing about the show is it is not hopeful nor is it crushing. It doesn’t make the world out to be a darker and more cruel place than it is, but it also doesn’t give us any of the comfort that we typically expect from our media. We’re not told, at any point, that things are going to be okay. We aren’t told that love conquers all. We aren’t told that you’re going to find fairness or happiness. We’re just shown the world of the show that so closely mirrors ours, with all the nerves exposed. In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, one of the characters, Samuel Vimes, is described as “two drinks sober,” meaning that he was always so sober that he couldn’t even tell himself the harmless lies that people have developed as part of society in order to sleep at night. That’s what this show is for media: It’s two drinks sober. It’s a hair too real to give us the comfort we expect or the painful distancing we secretly crave. It isn’t the show we want, it’s the show we need.
Overall, I loved this series. I thought it was funny, exciting, and so novel that it deserves an audience. However, I do concede that I might not have gotten out if it the same things that other people might have, particularly The Faceless Old Lady Who Lives on My Couch. So, in a first for this blog, I asked her to give me her perspective, rather than try to interpret hers through my own lens. She submitted this:
As absurd as the show can get, it’s absurd in a very real, human way and it just doesn’t stray that far from the ordinary kind of ridiculous. It’s not only hilarious but extremely cathartic. When Claire tells Martin to leave her and Martin’s counter-argument includes “I vacuum” and “I made dessert at Easter” and “I pick up my son from bassoon lessons” I actually put my face in my hands and said “Oh my god that is literally men.” It’s just such a perfect sendup of the ways we pat men on the back for doing the bare minimum in domestic life and relationships.
I’d been struggling to describe why this show feels different and refreshing compared to other shows that could also be described as both “brutal” and “funny,” but it’s best encapsulated by a speech in the show itself from a savvy businesswoman Fleabag has a martini with (Kristin Scott Thomas). “Women are born with pain built in. It’s our physical destiny. Period pain, sore boobs, childbirth, you know. We carry it within ourselves throughout our lives. Men don’t. They have to seek it out. They invent all these gods and demons and things just so they can feel guilty about things, which is something we do very well on her own. Then they create wars so they can feel things and touch each other, and when there aren’t any wars they can play rugby.” The show goes for honesty over melodrama, and there just isn’t the feeling of the writers trying to wring all the emotion out of you like there is in a lot of prestige TV. (Why it takes me forever to watch most of it.) And the comedy doesn’t feel like a bunch of writers in a room thinking about what the most offensive thing to say is. The show puts its trust in the writing and in the hearts and jagged edges of its characters and as a result it doesn’t have to try so fucking hard.
“I love you,” says Fleabag.
“It’ll pass,” says the Priest.
It’s brutal, without brute force.
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