Published on April 4th, 2019 | by Noah Dimitrie1
Fleabag is a hot tip that’s flying under the radar, featuring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the creator of Killing Eve (the brilliant show also features Olivia Colman).
The name “Fleabag” is never uttered in the show Fleabag, though it is a character’s name and that character is clearly the one embodied by star and creator Phoebe Waller Bridge. We only get “Fleabag” from the title; fitting, but also quite sad in implication for a show that is about a vain woman who is quite literally “the star of her own movie.” It’s not entirely clearly as to whether she actually has a real name and the show just purposely omits it or if it’s a strange piece of surrealism—the concept that perhaps she was actually born this way, given the rightful, Christian name at birth: “Fleabag.” Either way, it doesn’t matter; if there is one thing for certain in this peculiar, but extraordinarily inventive comedy, it is that Fleabag’s narrative is wrapped up entirely around the protagonist’s narcissism and thus its name is embraced wholeheartedly. This is a show that asks, “What would a show about an extremely selfish person look like if it was made by that selfish person?”
The entire formal framework of this BBC series places the camera in a possessive tense, so that her own ironic quasi-self-awareness of her messed up life shines through. She’s glib, she’s gleefully informal, and most importantly, she alienates almost everyone. As you immerse yourself in her worldview, it becomes clear that she is using the camera itself as a defense mechanism against her conscience. Yet, in every episode when the “Fleabag” title flashes on screen, we are reminded that it is a title of her own choosing; that while the character uses the series to vilify her snarky cynicism, buried underneath is a self-deprecating cry for help. One gets the sense that the camera is her only real friend, and again, in her constant winking and joking with us, there is a bitter sadness in knowing that she is using us as a crutch.
This becomes especially apparent when we get to know the select few who are at all a part of her life apart from casual hookups. Her sister, Camilla, is a high-strung careerist, and her father has married a flamboyantly pretentious artist (played by recent Oscar winner Olivia Colman) in the wake of her mother’s death. She owns a guinea pig-themed café (the kind of lite absurdism that adds dimension) and laments the absence of her former partner and best friend. She is simultaneously deeply loved and completely lonely, which is where her relationship to the audience comes in. Like the human mind itself, the starring vehicle that she has created for herself—that which we are fortunate not only to look into, but also actively participate in—contains a confounding blend of self-admiration and pure self-hatred.
Something brilliant has developed halfway into the show’s second season, which is currently airing on BBC and will be coming to North America courtesy of Amazon Prime on May 17. The show has smartly transitioned from basking in its self-deprecating identity to instilling a more focused sense of self-aware introspection. Specifically, with the introduction of Mike—a good-looking priest whom Fleabag simultaneously wants to corrupt and learn from—the show introduces a character who can see through her bullshit, literally, which is to say he sees her look into the camera, he hears her muttering quips into thin air. For once, a character in her show is not just a poor victim caught in a web of narcissism and cutesy manipulation. The wall that she has put up between her self-justifying internal world and the real world (the one where she cannot glibly ignore her problems) begins to show cracks. This provides room for the series to evolve, asking what happens when someone sees through you so well, even the formal structure you’ve created to depict yourself, to make yourself your own protagonist, fails you. Is that true love?
In addition to the show’s conceptual brilliance, it has a blisteringly smart wit and a deep sophistication to its storytelling. Waller-Bridge, whose other show Killing Eve has received far more acclaim and popularity, digs even deeper into her craftiness with Fleabag, which is a much more personal piece of art. A few critics have anointed her this generation’s Woody Allen (minus the creepiness) or Richard Linklater or Noah Baumbach or something; while I normally scoff at these types of comparisons, I think this one might be appropriate. Think of the way a movie like Annie Hall breaks the fourth wall in a self-deprecating way. Fleabag follows in its footsteps, yet contains such a carefully crafted and layered satire, it makes the style of that 1977 classic look pedestrian. As a person who cherishes the meta and the ways artists can wryly utilize it against themselves, this show is a one of a kind.