WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
A comedy series adapted from the award-winning play about a young woman trying to cope with life in London whilst coming to terms with a recent tragedy.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
Based on her hit, one-person play of the same name, the first season (or series, as the Brits put it) of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag was released in the United Kingdom back in 2016, and it rightly received plenty of critical acclaim and something of a cult following. It was not, however, a huge hit and it made precious little impact outside of the UK – certainly, I never even heard of it during its original run.
With streaming services (in this case Amazon Prime) bridging the television gap between countries, though, Fleabag started to receive a bigger and bigger international following and season 2 turned out to be a runaway success. Between garnering 11 Emmy Award nominations (of which it won six) and earning enthusiastic praise not just from critics but from the likes of everyone from Joss Whedon to Barack Obama, this little sleeper hit was suddenly a worldwide sensation. And a deserved one at that.
It’s not just wider distribution that resulted in this surge of popularity but a massive increase in quality between the two seasons that took a very, very good show and turned it into an instant classic with wider appeal, even more, assured writing from Waller-Bridge and, oh yes, the single highest Metacritic rating of any show in the 2010s.
Not that anyone should skip season one, though. It is harder to get into, and its bristling quirkiness may turn off some viewers – especially those unfamiliar with this kind of very British comedy-drama – but it’s still must-watch TV. Besides, season 2 loses a good amount of its effectiveness without the exceptional character work done in Fleabag’s début season.
The show revolves around the eponymous Fleabag (very few of the characters have actual names in this series, least of all our anti-heroine), played brilliantly by Phoebe Waller-Bridge herself who is a horny, irresponsible and decidedly broken woman in her 20s (30s?), trying her best to navigate her way through a life that includes a stream of broken relationships and one-night stands; a dysfunctional relationship with her uptight sister (Sian Clifford), her lecherous American brother-in-law (Brett Gelman), emotionally crippled but a kind dad who’s never not at a loss for words (Bill Paterson) and her 'evil' Godmother (the one and only Olivia Colman); and, worst of all, the suicide of her best friend and business partner, Boo (Jenny Rainsford).
It's the sort of setup that could so easily result in a thoroughly miserable family drama but is instead a solidly funny comedy that uses its humour to make its more melancholic moments (of which there are a great many) hit all the harder. Much of the humour comes from Fleabag breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly with often hilarious commentary on what’s happening – often puncturing what are otherwise tense moments between her and the weird strangers and even weirder family who come and go from her life.
She is not, however, a particularly reliable narrator, which is used to crushing effect during the final episode of the first season when we learn exactly why she is so thoroughly broken and why her behaviour often seems so recklessly nihilistic. It’s a spectacular finale that is more affecting than most “serious dramas” (with bits of humour thrown in, of course) but it ends on just the right note of hope after an emotion-packed and thoroughly sad reckoning between Fleabag and the people in her life.
Fortunately, unlike those who first watched the show way back in the young and innocent days of 2016, we don’t have to wait more than three years to see what happens to Fleabag next. Season 1 actually ends perfectly, if elliptically, and it didn’t necessarily demand a second season but looking back in hindsight, it feels seriously incomplete without the next six episodes. Season 2 builds on the events and character work done in season 1, scoring much bigger laughs and diving even deeper into the sometimes twisted psyche of its protagonist. It’s not quite as exquisitely tragic or melancholy as season one, and the comedy is slightly more “sitcom-y” but just because it’s brighter and funnier than what came before doesn’t mean it’s suddenly The Big Bang Theory. Certainly, with its deeper dive into existential angst and even deeper dive into the relationship between Fleabag and her uptight sister, Clare, Fleabag’s second season is less of a digression from the first season than a natural progression.
The catalyst for all this comes in the form of Andrew Scott’s 'hot priest'. Scott proves to be a standout in an already superb cast, and the character proves to be the perfect foil to Waller-Bridge’s titular character. Not just in the sense that an almost inevitable but no less forbidden romantic relationship starts to bloom between the two but in the way that the two apparently completely opposite people somehow 'get' each other in a way that virtually no one else on the show does. The way the show portrays this is a stroke of genius but is, obviously, not something I want to spoil here.
Starting with an engagement party that goes wrong in a way that only an engagement party on Fleabag can go wrong and ending with a wonderfully satisfying conclusion to Fleabag's character arc, season 2 doesn’t put a foot wrong. The show packs a lot in those six episodes (including a phenomenal guest role for Kristin Scott Thomas) with each episode both forwarding Fleabag's arc and creating beautifully contained and fully-realised individual stories at the same time.
By the end of the twelfth (and allegedly final) episode of Fleabag, the reason for why Phoebe Waller-Bridge is suddenly one of the film and television industry’s brightest and most beloved stars, could not be more apparent. It has been out for a while but if you happen to have not seen it – if nothing else, Amazon Prime is, perhaps surprisingly, the red-headed stepchild of the streaming services available in this country, so you may well have missed it for that reason alone – it should be right at the top of your list of quick binge-watches over the next few weeks. And, if you’ve seen it already, a rewatch may be just what the (coronavirus) doctor ordered.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE: