Tardy to the Party: Fleabag

Let’s forget the whole “tardiness” thing for a moment… Have you ever attended a party that didn’t end up being what you expected? I suppose the classic example would be a costume party—either you think it’s going to be a costume party and arrive to discover that you’re the only one in costume (a la Legally Blonde) or you don’t realize it’s a costume party and arrive in your regular clothes (an arguably much less embarrassing situation). There could also be potential awkwardness depending on the type of costume you choose to wear, especially if you’re female. Being the only one donning a “sexy” version of a costume in a room of full-out serious costumes or the only person in a full-out serious costume amongst a sea of “sexy” costumes (vis à vis Mean Girls) can make you stand out in a way you didn’t intend.

Regardless, once you’re aware of your mistake you have an important decision before you—do you stay at said party and hope that you end up having fun despite your faux pas, or do you call it a night a retreat back to the privacy and comfort of your own home?

Such was the situation I found myself in with the show Fleabag. I’d been hearing about it for a while, catching little bits and pieces here and there, and everything was glowingly positive. Then it won several recent awards, including two Golden Globes (for Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy and Best Actress – Television Musical or Comedy) and a Screen Actors Guild Award (for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series). The critics and fans singing their praises of both the show itself and its creator/writer/lead actress caught my attention, and the highly amusing clips I stumbled upon during lazy internet wanderings pushed me over the edge. I became convinced Fleabag was the next new series I had to watch.

And so, still Amazon Prime-less, I put the DVD of the remarkably short first season (6 episodes) at the top of my Netflix queue and waited for it to arrive in the mail. When it did, I put off watching it for a few more days until I had enough time to properly sit down and give it my full attention.

Much to my surprise, I hated the first episode.

I hated the second episode too, though my hatred might have decreased infinitesimally.

It wasn’t until the third episode that things started to turn around. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, but I was finally interested enough that I wanted to find out what was going to happen next.

A big part of my problem, I think, is that this party was not as advertised. I had been led to believe, based on the trailer/clips I had watched and the awards it had won, that this was supposed to be a comedy. A smart, rapid-fire, potentially strange comedy, but a comedy nonetheless. This wasn’t the case at all; it turns out that it’s a not pure comedy. Since watching the first season I’ve noticed that various websites list the show as a “comedy-drama” or a “tragicomedy.” Of the two, I find “tragicomedy” to be the more appropriate descriptor, in that it places the “tragedy” before the “comedy,” and in my opinion Fleabag is infinitely more tragic than it is comic. That’s not to say that one doesn’t have a bit of fun watching it, but I went into the first episode expecting big belly laughs and found myself depressed instead.

This was not the party I had prepared myself for.

Fleabag (the television show) is based on Fleabag (the one-woman play) created by, written by, and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge. While the play debuted in 2013, the first season of the television show came out in 2016 (thus I’m several years tardy to this odd party). It initially aired on the BBC, but was eventually picked up by Amazon Prime Video. Both the show and the play follow the main character (named Fleabag, though no one ever says her name) as she navigates daily life after tragedy strikes. This includes dealing with her uptight “perfect sister,” her perpetually vulgar brother-in-law, her wussy widowed father, and her passive-aggressive Godmother-turned-stepmother. Her very active sex life (I’m not judging, I’m just saying it like it is) and the adorable little café she’s desperately trying to keep afloat also factor largely in the series.

When the first episode begins, we’re blissfully unaware of our main character’s inner turmoil, though its invisible presence will become blindingly apparent as we work our way through the next 27 minutes or so, despite her repeated assurances that she’s “fine.” Initially a black screen is accompanied by heavy breathing, which continues as we suddenly see a closed door, and finally Fleabag herself. She’s standing right inside her entryway, out of breath, when she turns to the camera and immediately breaks the fourth wall, addressing the audience directly to let us in on the current situation. This kind of commentary/narration/aside is a staple of the series, along with the impressive array of expressions Waller-Bridge regularly shoots at viewers through the screen. It turns out that she’s waiting for a guy who’s rung her up for a late-night booty call. When he arrives, they get straight to business, which includes a sex act that might be unpalatable to some (again, no judgement). Fleabag continues to speak to the audience throughout the entire encounter, including the aftermath, creating an immediate intimate relationship between herself and us. We are her friends. Her confidantes. She can tell us anything.

In the next scene, Fleabag is on a bus skimming an article in a paper when she notices a man a few seats away checking her out. She coyly encourages his admiring glances until he lowers the newspaper that has been partially obstructing his face to reveal large, unattractive front teeth. Although this feature appears to turn her off, she continues to flirt with him when they get up to wait for their stop, and then for a few minutes after they get off at the same spot (side note—I was under the impression that she continued to flirt with him because she felt bad and wasn’t sure how to gracefully exit the situation without hurting his feelings, but later in the series it becomes clear that I was wrong). This exchange costs her precious time, causing her to literally run to her destination—she has an appointment at a bank where she’s attempting to obtain a small business loan. Unfortunately that meeting ends up being a total disaster; she realizes too late that she isn’t wearing anything but a bra under her red sweater (she’s hot after all that running so she starts to take it off mid-interview), which precipitates a cringeworthy conversation that results in her being asked to leave.

Fleabag goes on to meet her sister Claire for a feminist lecture their father bought them tickets to. It’s here we learn several important bits of information, like the fact that their mother is dead and their father is now sleeping with (married to?) their Godmother. The sisters’ relationship is strained at best—their interaction is full of angry looks and snarky comments. At this point it’s difficult to tell who’s at fault…is it Fleabag, wearing the shirt that she stole from her sister years ago? Or is it Claire, with her critical observations and a perpetual expression of contempt? Either way, it’s clear that these siblings don’t get along at all, and any attempt to show concern or affection results in misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and even an accidental punch. After parting ways with her sister, Fleabag needs a drink. I don’t blame her.

Unable to come up with a better plan, she agrees to meet the guy from the bus at a pub. He’s definitely smitten with her but she’s noticeably not into him at all, though the man himself is oblivious to this fact. Despite her disinterest, when he suggests another drink, she counters that they should go back to her place. Or his place. Whichever he’d prefer. He politely rebuffs her advances, startled by her forwardness, making her angry. She hurls a number of insults at him as she storms out the door, and is (hopefully) secretly mortified when he stops her to return the money she just dropped—money she sneakily stole out of the wallet he had carelessly left open on the table minutes before.

While waiting for a cab outside, Fleabag comes across a very drunk woman sitting on the curb, who promptly falls over as her breast pops out of her top. Concerned about the other woman’s state, Fleabag gently sits her back up, tucks her breast back in, and allows the woman to lean on her until a cab arrives. Once she’s helped the woman into a cab, we’re treated to a flashback of her drinking wine with a blonde woman named Boo, who we’ll eventually learn is her best friend. This is the second flashback starring Boo (I didn’t mention the first—it happened when the sisters were waiting for the feminist lecture to start), and it gives us some insight as to why Fleabag refuses to ask anyone for any kind of help when she clearly needs it.

But once the flashback is done, she proclaims, “Fuck it,” and is off. She turns up on her father’s doorstep at 2 AM in order to inform him that she’s fine, a clear indication that the opposite is true. His response, or lack thereof, provokes Fleabag into spouting a list of all the things she thinks is wrong with her, hoping, I suppose, for some kind of reassurance from her dad. But he makes a joke out of her pain, more out of desperation than anything else (he has no idea what to do with the daughter that’s falling apart right in front of him), and offers to call her a cab. He invites her in only after warning her not to go upstairs, which Fleabag does straightaway. She finds her Godmother/stepmother working on her “art,” and a beautifully crafted exchange of barbs commences, full of forced politeness, not-so-subtle jabs, and some exquisite passive aggression. The cab arrives just when things looks like they might get really ugly and whisks Fleabag away from her clueless father and mean-spirited Godmother, potentially offering her the chance to enjoy some much needed quiet contemplation. However even that small comfort eludes her for the moment, as her cabbie wants to have a chat. During their conversation, the fact that she runs a café comes up, and when he presses her for details, we learn that she opened it with her friend Boo…who recently died. (I won’t spoil that part of story here, you’ll just have to watch to find out what happened to her.)

As an uncomfortable silence settles inside the cab, Fleabag unbuttons her coat to reveal that she’s stolen one of her Godmother’s sculptures: a small, golden female torso. She admires it for a few seconds before looking at the camera with a knowing smile.

Cue title card and credits.

It wasn’t a bad story, but to reiterate what I said earlier, much of this material was entirely unexpected. I thought I was getting a happy-go-lucky British romp…what I got was a lot deeper, darker, and more complex. And if you’ve read any of my other articles, you’ll know that I don’t object to any of those things. The way I see it, it’s like ordering a steak and getting a salad; I enjoy both of those dishes, but if I’m in the mood for a nice, juicy steak, a salad just ain’t gonna to cut it.

My initial reaction notwithstanding, I thought the acting was superb. Phoebee Waller-Bridge gives us a believable character in Fleabag and isn’t afraid to show her sometimes (often?) awful side. She lays it all out there for us to see—the good, the bad, and everything in between. And in the end, after we’ve gone through all six episodes, slowly peeling back all the protective layers she’s wrapped around herself as we go, we find that maybe Fleabag isn’t so awful after all…maybe she’s just a deeply damaged woman dealing with trauma through a series of increasingly self-destructive behaviors. That doesn’t excuse any of the terrible things she does, but it makes her redeemable. It gives us hope that she could claw her way out of the hole she’s dug herself and become a better person.

As I made my way through the series, I discovered that the other series regulars deserved praise as well. Sian Clifford’s portrayal of Claire is startlingly touching, the portrait of a superficially successful woman repressing a lot of pain, anger, and self-doubt. Brett Gelman plays her husband, who’s so incredibly skeevy that I feel like I need a shower every time he’s on screen. There’s Bill Paterson as Claire and Fleabag’s milquetoast father, who loves his daughters and appears to mean well even though he can’t bring himself to actually do very much of anything for them. And Jenny Rainsford, who imbues Fleabag’s boozy bestie Boo with genuine affection as she graces many a flashback, is a constant source of unconditional love and acceptance for her friend. Of course, I saved arguably the best of the supporting characters for last—Olivia Coleman is delightfully wicked as the Godmother, now stepmother, delivering every vindictive line delicately, her words cutting just a little deeper with every syllable she utters.

At this point you might be wondering why I ended up sticking with a show that I had a such strong aversion to from the start. There were a few reasons: (1) I was so sure I was going to love it that I had already planned on writing this month’s article about it and I didn’t have enough time to watch a full season of a different show, (2) with only six half hour-ish long episodes in the season I figured that it wouldn’t take too much time to get through it, and (3) I’ve learned that sometimes you need to give a show at least a few episodes before giving up on it. So I dug my heels in, gritted my teeth, and watched the five remaining episodes. After finishing off the season, I’m still not quite sure how I feel about it. But I can tell you this with confidence—I like Fleabag (the character and the show) a hell of a lot better than I did when I started and I’m absolutely going to watch season 2. In fact, I enjoyed the first episode much more the second time around, as I rewatched it to prepare for this article. So I guess it won me over in the end. It’s definitely worth checking out, just make sure you know what you’re getting into. Fleabag is the blackest of black comedies, a tragicomedy with a strong emphasis on the tragedy. And like the best chocolate, it’s delectable, but ever so dark.

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