Amazon’s Fleabag is deliberately weird

The six-part British comedy series available on Amazon is a brilliant ‘sad-girl comedy’ about urban alienation

In The New Yorker, Pulitzer-winning TV critic Emily Nussbaum calls the new Amazon series Fleabag an “original bad-girl comedy” and a “warped and affecting fable” – which is, in film-reviewing parlance, as precise and accurate a description as can be afforded to a six-episode web-streaming show.

Because it is a comedy, in the narrowest sense of the term. It is warped. It is deliberately weird. It is Girls and Bridget Jones’s Diary and Sex And The City permeated by the gloominess – both metaphorical and physical – of the cold wet London weather. And most of all, it’s affecting, because it is immensely sad: a ‘sad-girl comedy’ perhaps. But then isn’t every single-girl-in-a-city rom/sitcom ever made?

It is warped. It is deliberately weird. It is Girls and Bridget Jones’s Diary and Sex And The City permeated by the gloominess – both metaphorical and physical – of the cold wet London weather.

Fleabag is an original kind of sad. It’s sad in a way we’re familiar and afraid of; it refuses to admit to its agony, its underlying grief, its dehumanization and depressing flourishes, with that typical politeness-over-all Britishness. It revels in the awkward guilt of having to watch someone try to be funny and dirty and outrageous. And it’s bad-girl all right, in the sense you feel horribly bad for this girl throughout.  

The girl, this girl. We’ve known a few. If you hug her, she will push you away with a wisecrack. But if she hugs you, she will make it look like she’s used to being pushed away. Even as I write this, I can’t quite get her face out of my head. It’s one of those pale faces that could well belong to a zombie apocalypse or campy vampire movie in a different context; only, it always has a smile. Always.

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Writer and actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge apparently came up with Fleabag as an impromptu 10-minute one-woman sketch for a stand-up storytelling night. What she has eventually created is an honest-to-hell portrait of urban alienation and its tragicomic hues.

A smile that looks to communicate all but happiness: a sarcastic smirk, an over-smart grin, a needy twinkle, a teary scrawl, an all-knowing beam. Which also explains why it – she – is so haunting. Hers isn’t the gaping-martyr smile. It’s the kind of jittery quasi-chuckle nervous passengers flash in a turbulent flight; the kind that stays only when you look at others for reassurance.

This London-based girl (writer-actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge), whose name we’re never told, makes us similarly uncomfortable. She loves watching others react to her inappropriate behavior. She thrives on it, unfiltered, letting it rip.

Every few moments she breaks the fourth wall and darts her eyes straight at us, visibly enjoying how we cringe too. She often speaks to us from toilet seats, from between the sheets, casually preempting every passionate move the guy makes – desexualizing the notion of privacy and physical intimacy. She even identifies one particular bed buddy solely by his favourite sex position. Every time he appears on screen, she mumbles this amorous moniker to us – half in giggly jest, half to flaunt her proudest conquest yet.

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In a way, we’re her Twitter feed. Unsuspecting followers. Except, instead of typing down her forcibly freakish observations, she finds solace in stealing the occasional wink-wink-nudge-nudge glance at us.

This London-based girl (actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is utterly lonely and imagines her life is entertaining to someone – anyone – because unlike the protagonists of other sad-girl sagas, she doesn’t have a group of designedly quirky BFFs. There’s nobody to compliment or exaggerate her existence for us.

This London-based girl (actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is utterly lonely and imagines her life is entertaining to someone – anyone – because unlike the protagonists of other sad-girl sagas, she doesn’t have a group of designedly quirky BFFs.

She had one friend, a best friend named Dee, with whom she ran a homely hamster-themed café. Dee is dead now, for tragic reasons revealed as the series goes on. She thinks of Dee all the time. She is reminded of Dee at the most inopportune times – memories propped by the sights and sounds of her current environment.

All their friendly hopeful evening-light-tinged moments, their perceptive camaraderie, Dee’s bright crazy eyes; so much, that we begin to miss Dee, too, and feel awful about that permanently plastered smile. Everything about our fleabag soon assumes the heaviness of a sordid reaction to this loss.

As a result, she isn’t foul-mouthed or unconventional in a crass way. It’s a front to distract so that we don’t really peak into her soul. The only person who reluctantly understands her brokenness is her uptight sister, Claire (Sian Clifford). So she derives a special kind of pleasure out of making Claire squirmy. She cares for Claire only so Claire doesn’t end up caring too much for her.

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This London-based girl (writer-actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge), whose name we’re never told, often darts her eyes straight at us and speaks to us from toilet seats and from between the sheets.

Everything else is a bit of a cat-and-cat game to her, especially the concept of men – and her sentimentally normal ex-boyfriend, Harry, who she cockily expects back every week. Her stiflingly fake equation with her evil stepmother (Olivia Colman), where pretension expresses more than resentment ever can, is the highlight of her life.

She craves for these deliciously volatile encounters, dragging us along with her “see what I mean?” sniggers. Most of us would avoid people we dislike, but nothing can really make her more uncomfortable than she secretly is. And it always seems that, even through these cheeky demonstrations, her glassy eyes are on the verge of brimming over.

We come across handles like her on social media, the kind who tweet a scandalous quip an hour to arrest eyeballs and rationalize their virtual popularity. They thrive on second-hand validation, and get fixated by the concept of putting themselves out there on a public platform. They’ll quote private messages, bait and humiliate unsuspecting folks, without so much as the furrowing of a brow (which she raises occasionally to make sure we see she’s condescending on her latest victim).

We come across handles like her on social media, the kind who tweet a scandalous quip an hour to arrest eyeballs and rationalize their virtual popularity. They thrive on second-hand validation, and get fixated by the concept of putting themselves out there on a public platform.

Over time, this humour becomes a button that can’t be switched off, a default reaction – to everything real and emotional too. They do things to “show” us – to show us they’re fine and dandy, to show us life is too short to hate on, to show us how sex is not crude and not for prudes, how smiling can be both self-depreciating and infectious, to show us that strength can be an exercise in self-denial.

At one point, when her mildly estranged father (Bill Paterson) asks her why she smokes, her response: “Because it looks cool.” From the way she takes smouldering introspective drags of her cigarettes, you’d imagine she grew up watching Hollywood classics that employed smoking, red lipstick and Garbo-hairdos as the ultimate glamour device. This is when the comedy part wears off. A searing character-study takes center-stage.

By the third episode of Fleabag, too, it’s fairly obvious that this girl is a ticking pressure cooker. She’s about to explode. From wondering why she has no concrete human attachments, we soon reach the no-wonder-she-has-no-attachments stage.

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“My body is all I can control, and it’ll get old too,” she blurts out during the inevitable meltdown, hinting at the consequences – and the crippling psychology – of sex addiction. Yet this condition feels like an aftermath, more like the result of all her flaws instead of the cause.

It isn’t as important as the fact that she can’t comprehend the difference between intimacy issues and abandonment issues. The burden she carries outweighs every fleeting outburst of juvenility. Cheap thrills, we think, until we see her side-smile at us again – and almost beg for a shrug in return.

By the third episode of Fleabag, too, it’s fairly obvious that this girl is a ticking pressure cooker. She’s about to explode. From wondering why she has no concrete human attachments, we soon reach the no-wonder-she-has-no-attachments stage.

I suspect that if she were put in the same room as dour-faced Manhattan-based Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender, from Steve McQueen’s Shame) with a bunch of porn magazines, they wouldn’t be able to touch each other. Or themselves. They would, in all likelihood, be repulsed by one another. Imagine looking into a mirror after subliminal 30-year-old benders. Shame doesn’t even begin to cut it.

Waller-Bridge apparently came up with Fleabag as an impromptu 10-minute one-woman sketch for a stand-up storytelling night. What she has eventually created is an honest-to-hell portrait of urban alienation and its tragicomic hues. It’s jittery, droll, pathetic, amusing and unapologetically confrontational. And it starts with a smile. It ends with one, too – only this time, it’s not aimed at us. Because perhaps there are no more mistakes left to be made. And no more baggage left to shed.

 

Fleabag, produced by Two Brothers Pictures for digital channel BBC Three, is available on Amazon. 

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