Fleabag: Television’s Most Empathic Comedy

Hype can be simultaneously a great thing and a terrible thing. It can build levels of excitement that just adds to the fun of expecting great things and yet whenever a movie or television series doesn’t engage one after being told how great it is, it can leave a sense of disappointment that can be somewhat stinging and regretful.

Anyone who has seen Fleabag, from audience members to critics to Emmy voters, will tell you that it is one of the very best things to air on television and yet watching it after hearing how great is it and seeing star and writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge win every award going, can steel one for expecting maybe some disappointment.

Fleabag, thankfully, is nowhere near disappointing. In fact, if one can describe Fleabag in anyway it would be proudly as being the real deal in terms of how damn good it is.

Funny? Yes. Dramatic? Yes, that too. Uncomfortable? For sure. Heartbreaking? Most definitely.

It’s hard to remember the last time a series ran the gamut of emotions and crossing over between the comedy and drama genres in the manner that this does. It’s perfection in every manner, with every one of the twelve scripts that Phoebe Waller-Bridge has written here being amongst the very best British comedy in recent years.

Like American comedy over the last decade and a half, British comedy has made the move away from the sitcom filmed in front a studio audience format into something considerably more cinematic. Audiences are no longer told when to laugh at jokes and can think for themselves when they should laugh, while the stagey, almost theatrical air and pauses for audience laughter has given way to high productions values, location filming and cinematic style filming.

The BBC has embraced the format over the last few years, particularly when it comes to its comedy series that fall under the BBC Three banner, with series that are not afraid to embrace a more darker tone and emotional undercurrent, while Channel 4 has taken to their hearts the works of Irish writers such as Lisa McGee with the truly wonderful Derry Girls, Sharon Horgan with Catastrophe and Aisling Bea with This Way Up, which Horgan also contributes to, while Sky Atlantic has become the home for Julia Davis’ brand of dark comedy.  

Best of all, many of these shows have put not only brilliant female writers and performers on the map, but also genuine female stories of which Phoebe Waller Bridge’s work here might represent not only the best female comedy over the course of the last three years, but some of the very best comedy produced anywhere in the world.

This is a series very much anchored by Waller-Bridge. Her character is the centre of every episode, she is in every scene, every episode is filtered through her point of view and with it that means every inch of it is filtered through her moments of joy, confusion, anguish and despair.

Episodes can run the range of being incredibly funny, uncomfortable, sexual and then filled with emotional pain the likes of which is so intense that I cannot remember the last time a series has felt this uncomfortable and deeply anguished in this way.

Then there’s the fourth wall breaking. There’s something about the way Waller-Bridge looks to camera that is not only deeply funny, but it makes the audience feel genuinely connected to her performance. It also means that whenever the titular character’s family do terrible things to her (and make no mistakes, Fleabag’s family are some of the most emotionally damaging relatives in the history of television) or her heart is breaking, it feels raw and real in a way that even the most powerful of dramas struggle to match.

Despite some of the intensity here, particularly in the season one finale and the season two premiere and its wonderful dinner party episode, Fleabag is filled with moments of absolute hilarity, astute observations and, when we get to season two, one of  the best modern love stories on television.

Fleabag’s relationship with The (Hot) Priest is one of modern television’s best and most heartbreaking romances.

So much has been written about Andrew Scott’s performance as The Priest, or The Hot Priest as many like to refer to him as, and there is no denying that the chemistry between Bridge and Scott is off the charts in a manner that is incredible. Sometimes with Scott it’s hard not to still see a little glimmer of that mischievous Moriarty glint in the ey, and yet as the all too short six-episode season goes on, we’re won over by him in a similar manner that Fleabag herself is.

The relationship is complex, as is the characterisation of Scott’s performance. He is very charming and lovable and yet is also shown to be someone who is very torn between what he sees as his duty and his feelings. In lesser hands, maybe male hands, this relationship could be seen as problematic or manipulative, and yet it never once feels uncomfortable or manipulative, but instead feels romantic, is funny and very, very real and we feel every inch of Fleabag’s emotions and feelings throughout the six episode second season run.

That’s what ends up being so wonderful about Fleabag; every inch of it ends up being an empathic machine in a way that very few television series are. Any emotion that Waller-Bridge’s character feels, we feel too, which makes viewing the series powerful in a way that transcends not only the comedy genre, but the entire television viewing experience (not to be too over the top about it).

Best of all, as is the case it seems with all British television series that aren’t Doctor Who, Fleabag ends after a short run, with a long gap in between seasons (it was three years between seasons one and two) and does so in an incredibly satisfying manner.

The eventual final episode is bittersweet and while our titular character is still unlucky in love, with her Priest deciding to stay with God as opposed to her, it ends up being a more upbeat ending than one might have imagined the series could ever deliver after the devastating revelations at the heart of the season one finale.

Make no mistakes, Fleabag feels real and flawed and isn’t afraid to show her making bad choices and mistakes that can have terrible ramifications. A decision to sleep with her best friend’s boyfriend leads to tragedy of which she is very much aware, and the emotionally fractured moments with her relatives, some of which are the most painful scenes ever filmed for television in the final episode of season one leads to that iconic image of her with make up running down her face that formed the poster and promotions for the first season.

Yet, season two ends in a way that is as happy an ending as one could have ever imagined. It never cops out in doing so, instead just letting our heroine get one up over on her Godmother (a wonderfully vindictive Olivia Colman), and fixing her relationships with her father and sister, while finally getting her brother in law Martin (Brett Gelman) out of their lives.

It’s brilliantly cathartic and comes just before the incredibly poignant final scene involving Fleabag and The Priest saying goodbye to each other. It’s a lovely moment and maybe as brilliant a final scene as any television series has ever delivered. The final fourth wall breaking features Fleabag turning to camera and waving goodbye is as lovely a moment to end this series on as you could imagine.

Like the equally perfect finale that Rachel Bloom and Alina Brosh McKenna delivered for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, there’s a sense of the lead character here eventually choosing herself. Of course she would have loved to have ended up with The Priest, but eventually these two characters who are desperate to be together, and their eventual scenes when they come close to consummating their relationship are as intense as anything on a series that can be described as a comedy, opt to not be. It’s sad and heartbreaking, but Fleabag walks away with a lovely wave to camera and possibly a better family life with her father and sister and it’s as lovely an ending as one could imagine for her.

Perfect television.

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