6:45am PT by Tim Goodman
Critic's Notebook: 'This Way Up' Is More Than a Spiritual Cousin to 'Fleabag'
As the Emmys and seemingly everyone watching in the audience and at home poured out love for Phoebe Waller-Bridge and her Fleabag, the little show that could but almost didn't (three years ago in this same month a number of rave reviews still had a hard time convincing people to watch), I thought about a different show: This Way Up. It's a series bought by Hulu from its British originators — and, well, more on that shortly.
But I also thought how different the massive love for Fleabag this week was from the situation the show was in three years ago, which is helpful when considering an overlooked show like This Way Up, which some are already calling a cousin of sorts to Fleabag.
For starters, five weeks before Fleabag's first season premiered on Amazon as a co-production I wrote a column about how Amazon was struggling, as a new content provider, in differentiating its originals from shows it had streaming rights to, having bought them from others. In short: Amazon shows weren't getting much special love; they were tossed in with the rest of the offerings, like products. It was hard to get noticed that way since people were very new to the idea that Amazon made its own TV series in addition to selling toilet paper and watches, etc.
There wasn't much hype for Fleabag, or advertising. There were 19 reviews for it (including mine) before it aired — a paltry amount, but the reviews were glowing (it had a score of 88 on Metacritic, which equates to "universal acclaim"). Still, what followed was months of critics saying, "You should watch this show on Amazon called Fleabag. It's brilliant!" And people would say, "Amazon makes TV shows? And what's a Fleabag? Is sounds gross?"
So, yeah, three years later and four Emmy wins in big categories — series, lead actress, writing, directing — and the only thing that's changed for other small, dying-to-be-discovered gems is that it's exponentially harder. Peak TV very clearly hasn't peaked.
But here's the thing — This Way Up really is brilliant. Irish actress and comic Aisling Bea (pronounced Ash-ling) created, wrote and stars as a troubled Irish Londoner, recovering from a mental breakdown of unknown origin and gingerly putting her life back in order, but slipping by degrees every day.
When This Way Up came out on Aug. 21, only a measly four outlets reviewed it — four! THR's own Dan Fienberg reviewed it favorably, but I happen to like it a lot more than he does (even when critics agree they tend to disagree on the little things). Three of the four reviews mentioned Fleabag (and Catastrophe, another British co-pro from Amazon that starred Sharon Horgan, who is also excellent in This Way Up, which comes from her production company). The gist from those reviews is that This Way Up is really good but flawed and, hey, if you miss Fleabag, this will fill that void, but come up short in the process.
Well, sure, which shows wouldn't? Fleabag is a real rarity, particularly the first season. It's interesting that the four reviews of This Way Up — I know three of the critics and like them very much, I will note in case you're getting the wrong vibe here — mention that it's not particularly plot-driven and that it tends to ramble a bit.
To which I would add: So does Fleabag season 2 (that's a show I adore and will fight over to prove it but, come on — all the resolution comes from the secondary characters and there's a lot of rambling about for our troubled heroine). Other shows that have indistinct plots: Atlanta, Master of None and about 29 others.
What I saw in This Way Up are all the excellent parts that my three peers also saw, plus a perfectly fine structure, interactions that effectively defined the state of Aisling's character, Aine (pronounced Anya), and an ending that set up a second season I'm extremely eager to know will be coming.
In This Way Up, we meet Aine as she's getting out of a treatment facility (or "spa") after suffering a breakdown. Aine's sister Shona (Horgan) picks Aine up and takes her home, and we flash four months ahead to when Aine looks, on the surface, like she's functioning well enough, just adrift when she's not filling the air with non-stop joking and whipsaw banter. Aisling infuses Aine with that manic sense of "If I just smile and joke around everything will be fine or at least everyone will think I'm fine."
But Shona knows better — she worries about Aine walking alone at night, tracking her movements by phone. Her obsessing is our hint that it was more than a breakdown. I thought This Way Up was excellent at illustrating that the "normal" things — going to work, interacting with strangers, cohabitating with a roommate — were the moments in Aine's day where she was most vulnerable, where her joys were fleeting, her connections superficial and her separation from family a little too much to bear. For me, the season was about a person trying to cope with life and getting it about 60 percent right on her best days.
The introduction of people beyond Shona — her boyfriend (played by Aasif Mandvi), his family, Aine's roommate's family, a humorless employer (Tobias Menzies) who slowly starts falling for her, etc. — was less random than it appeared; these were small encounters that brought glimpses of potential light to Aine or further delineated her woes.
What I also saw was something precise and outstanding — Aisling herself. It's that feeling I got when Waller-Bridge was at the Television Critics Association summer press tour in August of 2016 and you just knew. You could see it on the screen and you could see it in person. Aisling has the same kind of tour-de-force sense of humor and her writing in This Way Up is utterly fantastic. She injects her own character with a manic self-deprecation used to keep others at bay just as Waller-Bridge does as Fleabag.
But Fleabag and Aine are suffering from different things — it's more well-defined for Fleabag in the first season, without a doubt, but I'd argue the same relative underlying unhappiness she's living through in the second season is just as amorphous as what Aine is going through trying to be happy for a day.
An argument could be made that Fleabag only really and truly cares about Boo in the first season and that vulnerable, unprotected nerve shines through only when she stops using humor and scathing asides as a defense mechanism, just as Aine cares most deeply for others who are suffering and keeps her guard up with family (but only half-up with Shona, whom Aine relies on for emotional support). Both Fleabag and Aine are complex women feeling deep hurt and discontent, the latter often an unexplained or ill-defined emotion — which rings so true. Often with depression there's no one reason or easy explanation for why a person is spiraling. And that relentlessly nagging sense of unhappiness is hard to shake precisely because the root of it is indeterminate.
Over the course of six episodes of a mere 23 minutes each, Aisling's writing is a real revelation and her comedic sensibility spot-on. I was surprised at how often I would rewind scenes, marvel at the nuances in the writing — scathing humor, bubbling sadness — or delight in Aisling's fearless, all-in performance. This series, I thought, is vastly under-appreciated, in addition to having been completely lost in the Peak TV crush (a sentiment that was familiar from three years ago with Fleabag).
I hope more people discover how excellent This Way Up truly is and celebrate its own identity — not just flatter it briefly before calling it a cousin to something else.