Fleabag is the latest installment in the dark comedies the world finds more relatable than the sitcoms of the 90s to the early 2000s or the non-laugh track series of the 2010s. We have entered an era where deconstructing our own pain and laughing at the absurdity of our mortal selves bashing into each other in an attempt to feel, becomes therapeutic and entertaining.
Enter Fleabag. The premise would portray the show as the darkest of dramas. Fleabag is about a single woman in Britain whose guinea-pig themed café is now failing after her best friend and business partner committed suicide. She searches for love only to find meaningless sex that makes her feel worthless outside the pleasure her body derives from sex and gives to the men who use her. Her relationships with her family are strained by a father who is sleeping with their overbearing witch of a godmother after his wife (Fleabag’s mother) dies, and Fleabag’s sister is married to a needy, lying, sleezebag of a husband who Claire feels a need to protect at all times, feeding Fleabag’s inability to find a meaningful relationship.
Hahahahahahaha. Man what levity!
But comedy makes its bones off its ability to make a person relate to the absurdity of a situation, and dark comedy is taking off by finding ways to show the absurdity in our worst moments, amidst suicides, dead relatives, and failing marriages.
Where Fleabag succeeds is in how simply they build and deconstruct these dark moments. The efficiency in which they develop each character and their relationships is staggering. The season is only six, half hour episodes and yet, with no wasted time, the season is able to create a connection with the characters in the same way a ten, hour long episode drama does.
Take for example, our first-time meeting Claire and Fleabag. They are at feminist lectures that their father sends them to in order to atone for his inability to parent. In five minutes, we witness their relationship to each other (they are opposites who love and frustrate each other) and understand their relationship with their father (distant but wants to feel like he has done his part). The efficiency is refreshing when so many other shows might take three episodes to flesh these concepts out through less impactful means. Fleabag didn’t waste the viewer’s time. It tells its story and allows us to figure out the rest.
And as we journey through the story with these characters, nothing is held sacred. Much is built merely to be torn down. These relationships and gatherings are flimsy props in the eyes of Fleabag. It’s all bullshit. Simply bullshit. And she breaks the fourth wall with glances and narration (literally leaving the social construct) that exposes the ridiculousness of her sexual encounters, the predictability of her friendships, the disingenuousness of her godmother, and the awkwardness of her interactions with her father.
A drama tells the story of complicated relationships, Fleabag finds the absurdity in them. Poking fun at men who take themselves too seriously or gatherings that expect a measure of decorum that is undeserved and Fleabag is unwilling to grant it.
This is where Phoebe Waller-Bridge shines, in the moments where she breaks character and becomes the real Fleabag. In those moments, we see the depth of her character bubble to the surface in a glance, or a quick word or two, just between us. The tactic is not only effective in developing Fleabag and the plot, but an astounding feat of comedic timing, acting, and facial and vocal control. In half a second Fleabag breaks character, communicates her inner feelings, and then resumes character, all while the people around her continue the scene. I’ve embarrassingly tried a Fleabag-glance while in the shower or by myself while looking in a mirror, and I can’t do it even without a specific intent for my communication. The efficiency with which Waller-Bridge navigates her scenes and her two characters, the external and the internal, is one of the greatest television feats I’ve witnessed, and places her amidst my list of comedic geniuses.
But amidst the brilliance of the acting is a real heart to the show that darkly pokes fun at all the bullshit we experience, that defends the claim that sometimes, when life get really bad, all you can do is laugh. When you and your sister visit their relationship-stunted father on the anniversary of their mother’s death, only to have their wicked godmother continually hijack the day to assert her power and dominance over the household and belittle their mother’s memory in the process, sometimes all you can do is let the cat out the window and glance at the camera, as your very good looking boyfriend drives you off on his motorcycle, with a look that says, I may still have a mark on my cheek from where she slapped me, but I got that bitch, and smile.
That’s the brilliance of Fleabag, as close as can be estimated. That an entire relationship, episode, and emotional arc can be efficiently conveyed with one look at the camera. And that one look can take all the dark bullshit and simply laugh it away.
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