I was initially hesitant about Fleabag. It appeared to be riding the same wave of shows that focus on the lives of messy, awkward, sometimes cruel women going about their daily lives in some hip, up–and–coming city; often, they face money issues but never seem to be actually poor, and antagonize those around them, but in a charming way. Think Girls or Love or You’re The Worst, all media which isn’t necessarily bad, but not necessarily new or interesting. Why do we need another show like this when we already had Crazy Ex–Girlfriend? Yet, Fleabag is its own wonderful, perfect beast, and its second season is nominated for 11 Emmys—including Best Comedy Series, Best Lead Actress, and Best Supporting Actress. And frankly, it deserves them all.
Fleabag’s description on Amazon Prime, its sole streaming service, does it no favors: it reads, “Fleabag is a hilarious and poignant window into the mind of a dry—witted, sexual, angry, grief—riddled woman, as she hurls herself at modern living in London.” Really? “Dry–witted, sexual, angry?” We’ve seen that one a thousand times and will see it one thousand more; while Gina from Brooklyn Nine–Nine or April from Parks and Rec are certainly not the same character, they share those same underlying qualities. It is an improvement to see sarcastic and angry women becoming an archetype compared to the flawless, chipper women of older media, but this new trope has become so omnipresent that it may swing too far in the opposite direction. If we can see this person on other TV shows, who cares about Fleabag?
Well, I care about Fleabag. The main character of the show is unnamed, but critics and fans alike refer to her by the title of the show. Her name, if she has one, is never spoken by any of the characters around her, leaving the actual identity of the person whose life we peer into completely unknown. “Fleabag” is defined as “a shabby or unpleasant person or thing,” which is an apt description for writer and actress Phoebe Waller–Bridge’s character. She is sarcastic, irritated, and tired. She is angry, grieving, and struggling. Unlike many characters in the typical 'sarcastic woman' role, Fleabag actually does have trouble with money and has made grave, horrible mistakes in her life. Yet, despite her horribleness, we get to see how she suffers for these actions, fights with family members, and grapples with the accidental tragedy she may have been the cause of.
But this has all been about the concept of Fleabag, not Fleabag itself. What makes it special? As an art form, it takes an overused sub–genre and turns it into something fragile. Fleabag cuts out laugh tracks, flashy transitions, long episodes, and loud music, and strips television of its artifice. There's nothing fancy in this show, which grounds its audience in the incredibly small cast of characters—only four in its main set for season one, five for season two. The “catch” is how Fleabag looks into the camera and speaks into it—but not in the same way as characters on The Office do, who look to a cameraperson. Fleabag does it as diary entries throughout conversation, sometimes turning to us to quip and then responding to a question in real life. She sees us as an individual just as we see her; she clarifies things for us, introduces people and gives their backstory, or looks to us in tense moments for some glimmer of empathy.
Fleabag is funny, all scathing wit and sharp quips. But in equal turn, it's also perfectly dramatic. Fleabag realizes that her life is falling into drama and winces at it, terrified of the solemn realness of her own actions. Drama rises out of comedy just as much as comedy rises out of drama, and it works so well because this is exactly how our daily lives function; a situation culminates, is brought to rest awkwardly, and is broken with a joke. The humor of this show is difficult to explain because of how particular it is, often rooted in the titular character's discomfort. You laugh at the ridiculous situation Fleabag has gotten herself into and the ridiculous way she tries to get herself out.
Despite this, Fleabag is a show of real consequences. The relationships with her family are vitally grounded, and no matter how silly her situation is, it has actual impact on others. The fumbling nature of Fleabag’s relationship with her sister Claire (Sian Clifford), or the uncomfortably stilted one with her father (Bill Patterson), or the awkward new one with her godmother–turned–stepmother (Olivia Colman) are so perfectly depicted that it is all too easy to become invested. Season two introduces the character of the Priest—played by Andrew Scott—and Fleabag grapples with a higher power for the Priest’s affections. The introduction of Fleabag's relationship with the Priest in season two are why it's better than season one (though they both have 100% on Rotten Tomatoes). He sees her in a way that we thought only we could see her: Beyond the façade of the “dry—witted, sexual, angry, grief—riddled woman," there exists someone who is terrified, just as he is.
What makes Fleabag different is its intimacy. It invites you into a tiny, frightening sort of world of a character who makes mistake after mistake, each with poignant consequences. But it also lets you laugh with her. Waller–Bridge writes and stars, making the entire orchestration somehow profound. The family in Fleabag is based on her own, and the main character is a reflection of her. To see such a talented creator put herself on the screen so clearly with no borders, looking directly into the audience and saying, 'this is me, here I am', shows a massive amount of bravery.
Fleabag is its own unique, individual art. It's cheesy to say that I love it because it’s about a woman navigating familial relationships and romantic ones, but there is something so real both about the show and its eponymous character. Waller–Bridge has captured fear and humor that reflects reality in a new, interesting way. What I’m saying is: give Fleabag its Emmys this Sunday, because it deserves them.