Two of the most frequently encountered modalities in the modern world of television comedy share a common weakness: the way the negative personalities of the main characters tend to get in the way of the laughs. Comedies centered around protagonists with mental illness can succeed, and the genre has produced at least one great show (Lady Dynamite) and one good one (BoJack Horseman), but if the viewer has never suffered from, say, depression or bipolar disorder or OCD or social anxiety or Asperger’s, or at least known someone who has, the main character can come across as if he’s just being unpleasant for no good reason. In the distinct but adjacent world of comedies whose characters are supposed to be unreliable — in the outgrowth of the comedy of humiliation in which we’re expected to empathize with the person being humiliated — they really are being unpleasant for no reason. In Fleabag, a series originally created for the BBC and imported to America via Amazon, the main character — a nameless single woman in London who pads out the time between running a failing business and dealing with her deeply dysfunctional family by careening between inappropriate sexual partners — is definitely unpleasant, and very possibly disturbed, or at least dealing with some powerful issues of grief and abandonment. But she’s funny as hell, and manages to sidestep almost every pitfall of the genre.
This is largely due to the prodigious talents of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who not only stars as the nameless protagonist but also wrote the show and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival piece on which it was based. Fleabag has a theatrical origin (and a few noticeable precedents; the cruelly perceptive dialogue owes an obvious debt to Joe Orton), but a literary conceit: the viewer is privy to the main character’s inner thoughts, which she usually delivers with alarming frankness directly to the camera. Once you get used to the gimmick, it can be a bit unnerving when Waller-Bridge, whose portrayal of the character is that of a woman with almost no governor, going from zero to ninety in the space of one comment, actually says something to another character that we first assume is a third-wall-breaking aside. It’s a jarring reminder of how nasty the character can be. Part of what helps sell it is that everyone else around her is just as fucked up as she is, from her completely delusional lovers to the family that’s always waiting to tell her what a disappointment she is. But mostly, it’s the outstanding skills of Waller-Bridge at comedic and dramatic acting that gets it over.
Fleabag (the character has the same name as the show, though no one ever actually calls her that) runs a failing coffee shop in London that she co-owned with her partner and best friend, who recently died in an accident that’s both horrifically tragic and skillfully played for laughs. There are only a few constants in her life: her sister, who seems to deeply resent her even though she’s far less successful; her mildly disapproving milquetoast of a father; her horrid stepmother (or, as Fleabag likes to call her, “the woman my father was fucking when my mother died”); and the endless series of flawed lovers with whom she spends time before inevitably ricocheting back to her needy know-nothing boyfriend. Though Waller-Bridge carries much of the show on the strength of her own performance, she wisely stocks the rest of the cast with pros, particularly writing partner Cian Clifford as her tightly wound sister and the delightful Olivia Colman as her stepmother, who embodies a peculiarly British kind of passive-aggressive nastiness.
We’re able to identify with Fleabag, on whose rapid-fire delivery of brutal bon mots the comedy depends, largely because as bad as she is — and she’s plenty bad, basically stealing from her customers and masturbating to a Barack Obama press conference while her boyfriend sits next to her in bed — everyone else really is as broken as she is. Another touchstone here is Terry Southern, if he’d been a little less distant and a little more emotionally involved: as in his work, no one in Waller-Bridge’s cosmology is innocent. And while there are dry moments, jokes that don’t land, and narrative lapses, much of what rescues Fleabag is that she’s willing to go far afield from the cynical sex comedy routine and into uncharted territory. There’s plenty of surreal moments: an extended anal sex bit turns to her facing the camera in naïve surprise and asking “Do I just have a huge asshole?”; a period joke that would have been trite on 99 out of a hundred other shows delivers a huge laugh because of its inventive staging on a commuter train; and, given how much the show relies on Waller-Bridge’s bursts of acid patter, a visit to a self-righteous ‘healing retreat’ that demands she be silent — and then pays big comic dividends when, of course, she can’t.
The big dramatic reveal towards the series’ end doesn’t feel completely earned, but it’s at least set up in a clever way: near the beginning of the series, when she attempts to clumsily seduce the bank manager of a firm already plagued by sexual harassment rumors, Fleabag sets up a relationship that will not only have a great comedic payoff but sets up a powerful emotional moment later on as well. It plays out at the retreat, where a nearby men’s empowerment seminar seems to have no more effect that encouraging the attendees to bellow “SLUTS!” at inopportune moments, but it sets in motion the events that make it clear why Fleabag is broken in the way she is, and what kind of person she might be if she wasn’t. The shift in gears isn’t unprecedented, but it’s jarring just the same, and it adds depth while in returning stripping out some of the comedic daring. Ultimately, Fleabag is a very satisfying show, and that’s whether it ends up being renewed for a second season (as is the current belief) or it ends on the last shot of a unique and often hilarious series.