You can get away with a lot with a proper English accent. Case in point: Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s audacious comedy series Fleabag. The six-episode series that premiered in the United Kingdom on BBC three in July will be available for streaming in the United States of America on Amazon from August.
At the centre of the series is the titular character Fleabag (we never find out her real name), who is grieving the death of her best friend, struggling to keep her business afloat (a hamster-themed café) and awkwardly surviving her many doomed sexual encounters. Adapted from the award-winning stage monologue by the same name, by playwright, comedian, show runner and lead actress Waller-Bridge, the show does something few TV shows have done. It puts an inappropriate, angry, rude, loud and damaged woman at the centre – and makes it work, phenomenally.
Fleabag is joined by her on-and-off boyfriend Harry, her successful, anorexic and sexually frustrated sister Claire, her father and his odious partner (played spectacularly by Olivia Colman) and images of the time spent with her best friend, Boo. She constantly addresses viewers, making them complicit in the chaotic, lewd and brazen disaster that is her life.
The series plays out its dark, rude and unapologetic humour against a background crowded of painstakingly written characters. They attempt to make the best of all that life throws at them, usually to depressingly hilarious results. Peppered with witty-one-liners and a generous usage of the c-word, the script is as crisp as it is audacious and outrageous. As a running gag, Fleabag often charges her few and far between customers exorbitantly for coffee and sandwiches. All they can do is mutter “London” as they shake their heads in exasperated resignation. And then there are obviously a lot of hamsters.
Over the last few years, TV has seen many strong and commendable female characters take the centre stage, such as Claire Underwood in Netflix’s House of Cards, Robin Griffin in BBC’s Top Of The Lake, Cersie Lannister, Arya Stark and Daenerys Targaryen in HBO’s Game of Thrones, or the ensemble of complex women in Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. But almost always, these women are figures of bravery or strength.
Fleabag is none of that. She is flawed, furious, broken and plain messed up. She fantasises about Barack Obama while her boyfriend sleeps next to her, steals artifacts from her awful godmother (who should’ve seen that coming), and goes for a run through the graveyard, every morning. She sums herself up in a conversation with her father: “I have a horrible feeling that I am a greedy perverted selfish apathetic cynical depraved morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.”
This isn’t a self-deprecating statement. Fleabag doesn’t display too many redeeming qualities for the first half of the series. But as the show progresses, it introduces audiences to the latent and lost parts of her character, played out in the scenes with her now deceased best friend, Boo. A recurring image is of Boo moments before the semi-intentional suicide that killed her, face streaked with mascara, standing confused and disoriented at the edge of traffic. Eventually, Fleabag finds herself in an identical place after a particularly disastrous evening full of alcohol, humiliation and unfortunate revelations. It becomes more and more difficult to write her off as a detached, angry, loud and unstable comedian. She is in pain, scared, lost, and confused. And alone, “which isn’t fucking funny”.
With Fleabag, BBC Three and Phoebe Waller-Bridge have created something unforgettable and stinking fresh. The only character that comes close to being this unapologetically messed up is Gretchen in FXX’s You’re the Worst, whose depiction of a woman battling clinical depression sparked a significant conversation about mental health.
Watch Fleabag, if you’ve got the stomach for uncomfortable conversations and despicable characters. The quick and jumpy editing, paired with the two-second jazz introduction in the title frame, only adds to the chaos. It is British humour at its offensive best.