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Nearly three years after it premiered in the United States on Amazon, the critically acclaimed British series Fleabag — which launched its creator, writer and star, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, into the stratosphere — returns changed, though not surprisingly.
Fleabag the character is still as great as ever; Fleabag the series struggles to make a point in quite the same way as it did in season one.
AIR DATE May 17, 2019
For its initial run, Waller-Bridge workshopped her 2013 one-woman show of the same name and honed it to small-screen perfection. As with a band’s debut album, years of creative tinkering went into the process. And as with many bands, it’s the sophomore effort that generally disappoints.
Given that Waller-Bridge has said that she never expected to make a follow-up season and showed little inclination to do so — changing her mind late in the game, after her newfound stardom took her in various creative directions, including writing and executive producing the hit Killing Eve — it’s no wonder that the new episodes of Fleabag are missing the kind of taut, unpredictable storytelling that marked season one.
Again, Fleabag the character is as brilliantly funny, damaged and wholly original as when we last saw her, but the show’s purpose and direction feel less sharp here (and since there are no plans for a third season, that’s how it will go out).
Waller-Bridge came around to the idea of a second season only when she was convinced that she could pick up Fleabag long after the events of the first season — 371 days, 19 hours, 26 minutes later, to be exact. Waller-Bridge told BBC News recently that she’d knocked around some ideas, and the ones that appealed to her most revolved around religion and jokes she’d been writing about Christian faith, specifically Catholicism. Thus was born the plotline that finds Fleabag meeting and — in typical Fleabag fashion — falling for a priest.
It’s a good idea on paper, maybe, but in execution it never fully takes off. Waller-Bridge is adept at fleshing out stories for other characters, particularly Fleabag’s uptight sister, Claire (Sian Clifford), and, to a lesser extent, her father (Bill Paterson) and manipulative godmother (the wonderful Olivia Colman). But there’s no avoiding the fact that Fleabag is the world around which everyone — even Academy Award winner Olivia Colman, which is fun to say — orbits. The central story involving Fleabag needs to be intriguing or clever, even if it doesn’t match the superbly sad and twisty heights of season one.
But Andrew Scott’s new priest in town isn’t convincing as a priest: He’s immediately dubious in his no-filter swearing, copious drinking and smoking (OK, those are believable) and especially his nervous demeanor. It’s as if he’s hiding something. Is he on the lam? Faking it? Are we going to find out he’s married, perhaps several times in several places? With his nervous charm, Scott is immensely likable, and it’s not hard to see how Fleabag would fall for him (as ridiculous as that may sound), but where the series ultimately takes this connection seems sketchily thought out rather than fully realized.
The show’s stylistic signature is to have Fleabag break the fourth wall constantly for comic effect. Weirdly, in the new episodes Waller-Bridge lets the priest notice and comment on that conceit. “What are you doing?” he asks her when she turns to address viewers directly. “Where did you go?” By calling attention to the fact that Fleabag is talking to the camera, the show introduces all kinds of ideas: Is this really happening? Is Fleabag actually dead? Is the priest God? As narrative feints go, it’s more distracting than engagingly creative.
By season’s end there is, for lack of a better word, movement among some characters. That movement isn’t particularly surprising, however, and it leaves Fleabag’s fate more undefined. It feels like the result of fans demanding a second act and Waller-Bridge, with some reluctance, saying, “Sure, why not?”
And while there’s great joy in seeing Fleabag and the other characters again, there’s less urgency to their stories this time around. That’s particularly true when no third season is planned; knowing this has a diluting effect on the new episodes.
Cast: Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Sian Clifford, Olivia Colman, Bill Paterson, Andrew Scott, Brett Gelman, Jenny Rainsford
Creator-writer: Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Director: Harry Bradbeer
Premieres May 17 (Amazon Prime)
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