When I first started Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s BBC comedy series (now streaming on Amazon) about a damaged single woman in her thirties, I quickly became wary of it being a slightly older version of Girls, a show that I hated about self-absorbed, toxic narcissists who are unbearable to spend time with. But luckily, Fleabag may feel familiar at first, but then it sneaks up on you with the vividness of its writing and characters who start to feel real. Damaged, yes, but in a very poignant, empathetic way. By its second season it then transcends into poetic brilliance, and I’m so glad that I stuck with it.
Waller-Bridge herself plays Fleabag (never referred to by name in either season) a single woman who runs a cafe with her best friend, sleeps around, has strained relationships with her family and is struggling with herself and her tendency to self-destruct. Her frequent asides to the camera relay her perspective on life and the people surrounding her, and the barbed wit is funny but tinged with constant episodes of real bleakness as it’s revealed that Fleabag’s emotional state suffers under the weight of the recent deaths of her mother and best friend. The first season (each is just six episodes), establishes Fleabag, her stressed out sister Claire (a very funny Sian Clifford), her brother-in-law Martin (Brett Gelman playing yet another douchebag), her father (Bill Paterson) and her father’s girlfriend (Olivia Colman, doing her dry, two-faced politeness bit to perfection). The issue I had at first is Fleabag herself being so purposely and nonchalantly self-destructive that it’s hard to root for or identify with her, especially as her many bad decisions are laid out in such an obvious pattern. But the show does a good job of characterizing her pain as it goes along, even if the downish nature of the show tends to overshadow the humor in a season that I would consider far more of a drama than a comedy.
But then comes the second season, and as time has passed on the dark ending of the first, the series adds Andrew Scott as the priest who will be marrying Fleabag’s dad and future stepmother. He’s a “cool, sweary priest,” as Fleabag soon discovers, and now that she’s committed herself to being a better person she immediately falls in love with him. The Thorn Birds storyline has been done before (see also: Leon Morin, Priest), but there’s nothing sexier than trying to seduce a man sworn off from sex, and as Fleabag swoons over the charming, extremely likable Scott, so do we. Waller-Bridge manages to find something new in the old romantic trope and this storyline provides a heart and humanity to the acidic humor that was missing from the first season, while building again on Fleabag’s grief for her mother, and bringing the frantic Claire to a peak of joyous final triumph over the worthless lout Martin. Showing the characters grow rather than remaining in place replaces the bleakness with a willingness to fight and overcome, which makes the funny stuff all the more hilarious as we can root for Fleabag fully this time around. I loved the second season of this show, and the joy of making it was clearly not lost on its performers, all of whom are having a great time and displaying a genuine rapport with each other, especially Waller-Bridge and Scott. The show will apparently end now after two seasons, to which I say, good. It goes out on such a high note it would be a shame to spoil it.