'Fleabag': TV Review
An exceptionally creative new comedy on Amazon reveals a rising creative force in Brit Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
There is a neat trick inside the truly wonderful new comedy Fleabag, which premieres its six-episode first season today on Amazon. And that is that Fleabag's creator and star, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is so intoxicatingly hilarious and lovely — a mixture of wildly inappropriate and devilishly adorable — that you mostly don't see the onrushing sadness until it's too late and you're devastated.
In many ways, Waller-Bridge, who fills the screen with her lanky frame and expansive and expressive eyes as she talks directly to the camera in various shades of snark, is the ultimate distraction. She's in every scene of Fleabag, based on the play that won her the Fringe First Award at Edinburgh, and she's so ultimately charismatic and in charge of her character and comedy that the short (and eventually longer) flashbacks to the loss of her best friend are like bricks that hit you in the head while you're staring and laughing at her fearless performance.
And in the end, the devastating bit that haunts Fleabag is the truly central element of the show, heralding a very distinctive new voice on television (the rarity of that feat shouldn't need to be punctuated).
Fleabag is the nickname of Waller-Bridge's character, but it (and her character's real name) is never mentioned. We just meet her in the opening scene mere seconds before she starts talking directly to the camera, and off we go on a raucous, hilariously filthy and forever awkward walk through her life.
Part of Fleabag is Waller-Bridge exploring a character who feels simultaneously energized and postmodern with her guilt-free sex, the joys and needs she finds in it, while later breaking down and blurting out her fear that getting all of her validation through everyone's desire to sleep with her will ultimately haunt her when age strips it all away. It's a scene where she defiantly says others are thinking at least a fraction of that same thought but not talking about it. We know that Fleabag is broken, it's just not easy to see all the reasons why.
The other major part of Fleabag is how she's haunted by the death of her best friend, Boo (Jenny Rainsford), who died in an accident not meant to go so horribly wrong. Acting out at the world — specifically her awful godmother (the wonderful Olivia Colman) who married her father (Bill Paterson) when her mother died of cancer — allows Fleabag to keep Boo's memory at bay. And there are plenty of other things in life to poke at, particularly her uptight sister, Claire (Sian Clifford, who becomes a real gem in this series).
Neither Claire nor Fleabag are "normal" in any real way, and the series doesn't directly connect, in this first season, the loss of their mother and their father's clear inability to express affection to that sense that neither daughter has found happiness for a reason.
Waller-Bridge's seemingly endless ability to convey her direct feelings to the camera with just a mere glance is almost always played for humor (and played well), but the series does mix it up with varying degrees of emotion — those little hints that you don't quite see piling up because there's so much gold in the comedy. Fleabag and Claire (and Waller-Bridge and Clifford) are a mixture of comedy and tragedy, while elsewhere Fleabag can skewer her hilariously meek on-again, off-again boyfriend, Harry (Hugh Skinner), or Claire's awful American husband, Martin (Brett Gelman, who is terrific). The comedy is ripe, plentiful and distracting.
Fleabag, like Catastrophe before it (also on Amazon), is one of the rare half-hours with dramatic elements that doesn't abuse the percentages by erasing most of the comedy. This is a series that puts the laughs first but is always, as you find out, heading for something deeper. It just doesn't marinate in it beyond all tolerance.
What's perhaps most impressive and certainly hopeful here is that Waller-Bridge is very adept at feeling the moment. She'll veer away from emotion in one scene and then straight into it when you least expect it. She has several scenes with a bank manager (Hugh Dennis) that are so randomly all over the map that it's easy to guess wrong at each turn about what note she's going to hit next.
The beats of Fleabag are refreshing in that Waller-Bridge will lead you toward (more) outrageousness but realizes when well-earned dramatic moments need their time. That certainly bodes well for more seasons — even after we find out why Fleabag's world is coming apart, there's so much left to get immersive with in the future. In fact, how Waller-Bridge walks her character up to the edge of emotional frailty and then only explores a small part of it brings out the pathos that so clearly lies behind the comedy and leaves you wanting more development and character exploration. These six half-hour episodes are easy to binge and demand future seasons because it's clear a major talent is upon us.
Studio: Amazon Studios
Cast: Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Sian Clifford, Jenny Rainsford, Olivia Colman, Bill Paterson
Creator: Phoebe Waller-Bridge