There are a lot of woman-centered half-hour series on television these days, which is a welcome trend. Besides the ensemble productions like Girls and Orange Is the New Black (which actually runs for an hour), there’s Broad City and Lady Dynamite and One Mississippi and Better Things, and the subject of this post, the wonderful Fleabag. These shows don’t just feature women, they are created by women. Many of them seem at least partly autobiographical, although I don’t know how far down that road I’d want to go. Broad City is my favorite, but after a six-episode first season, Fleabag is running a close second.
Creator/writer/star Phoebe Waller-Bridge is the key to what makes Fleabag great, which given her multiple duties might seem obvious. I’m inclined to hail a new star, and ask where she has been all of our lives, but of course, she’s been around for a long time (she’s 31, and has been at this for a decade), even appearing in things I’ve seen, even if I don’t remember her (the second season of Broadchurch, Albert Nobbs). It’s her face that does it. Her unnamed character regularly breaks the fourth wall, which is a cliché by this point, but she makes it work because 1) she gives herself great dialogue, and most importantly 2) because of the wordless times when she stares at the camera and tells us everything we need by facial expressions. She sucks us in from the very first scene ... she is so engaging in a recognizably human way that we don’t just want to root for her, we want to be her.
That first scene also establishes the sexual frankness that is a running component of Fleabag:
Her eyes are fabulous, far more than mere windows into her soul. I want to give her eyes an Emmy.
This may all seem run of the mill in 2016, half Bridget Jones, half Sex and the City. Waller-Bridge’s character is like a blend of Abby and Ilana in Broad City, sexually adventurous but always thinking about what she is about to do. It’s a unique take, no matter how much you think you’ve seen it already.
While many of the half-hour shows today are mostly dramas that get labeled comedies because once in awhile you laugh, Fleabag is more obviously a comedy. Here, it’s not the jokes that sneak up on you, but instead the raw emotions. The final episode does not come out of nowhere ... looking back, you can easily see how it was set up. But when we see Waller-Bridge’s character deal with the consequences of her actions, it’s heartbreaking. And again, it’s Waller-Bridge who gets the lion’s share of the credit. She wrote the prize-winning one-woman play on which the series is based, she wrote all of the episodes of the series, she plays the lead role (I can’t remember, but she may be on screen for the entire six episodes). It’s one of the best accomplishments of this television season. A BBC Three show that ran during the summer, it can now be binged in its entirety on Amazon. A.