Before it became a six-episode UK comedy series, Fleabag was a play, and you can still see that theatrical DNA in the series, which debuts on Amazon tomorrow. The unnamed title character, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (who wrote both the play and the series), frequently looks away from the action to tell us how she feels about it, and the story – a mix of romantic travails, family tension, and a bit of concern about the fate of the guinea pig-themed cafe Fleabag owns – is so very small that it’s easy to imagine it being confined to a stage.
Waller-Bridge and director Harry Bradbeer have opened it up so that a good bit of the story takes place outdoors or in big spaces, including an episode where Fleabag and her sister Claire (Sian Clifford) attend a women’s retreat at a country estate very much resembling Downton Abbey. But the most cinematic aspect of the series is the face of its creator and star, which Waller-Bridge and Bradbeer use to marvelous comic effect time and again. Waller-Bridge’s features are all slightly more exaggerated than average (if DC were ever going to turn Duela Dent into a live-action character, she’d be the only proper choice to play her), and the combined effect of them all, on top of her gifts as a performer, makes Waller-Bridge’s face so expressive that the best asides to the audience are usually the ones without any dialogue at all, where Fleabag flashes a delighted “Can you believe this?” grin or pop of the eyes at us at the latest absurdity before her. The show at times feels like it could work as a story from the silent movie era – assuming audiences of that time wouldn’t be scandalized by frank discussions (and more) of anal sex, fetish porn, and vibrators.
Though the sex talk is as explicit and absurd as Amazon’s marvelous fellow UK import Catastrophe, Fleabag is more introspective and more frequently dramatic, particularly as it moves along. Initially, it presents as yet another comedy about the sexual and romantic misadventures of a young woman with an uncanny knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time: a bit Bridget Jones, a bit Girls, Netflix’s Love, etc. That part is very funny (the punchline to the R-rated opening scene is a delight) and never entirely goes away, but very quickly Waller-Bridge begins laying out clues that something is bothering Fleabag beyond her more general concern that “I am a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.”
She and the older, more successful Claire are bonded by their grief over the loss of their mother and disdain for their stepmother (Olivia Colman, steering gloriously into the narcissistic skid of it all), yet there’s an intangible, seemingly insurmountable distance between them, and the series is often at its most unsettling when the two are getting along, because something very bad has to happen to muck it up. And in the early episodes, people seem to ask a bit too often if she’s okay, with Fleabag’s insistence that “I am absolutely fine” being repeated to a point that makes clear how the lady doth protest too much. The season slowly(*) explains the source of some of her pain as we learn more and more about the death of her best friend Boo (Jenny Rainsford), and get a better sense of the problems in Claire’s marriage to her American husband Martin (Brett Gelman).
(*) Like Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi, which debuted its own six-episode season on Amazon last week, Fleabag is a reminder of how less can be more with these incredibly small and personal stories. If Waller-Bridge had wanted to do additional episodes over this season, I’m sure she could have pulled it off, but this length (traditional for many British comedies) fits the emotional scope of the story and doesn’t ask it to support more screentime than it should. There’s more depth and detail to the characters than would be possible in a movie-length version (or, I’m assuming, the original play), but not so much that the story doesn’t become too thin for the vessel containing it.
Triumphs lead to humiliations, and vice versa, and there’s a scene in the fourth episode where Fleabag runs into a bank manager (Hugh Dennis) whom she met earlier in the season under more comic circumstances, that’s among the best, and simplest, dramatic scenes of television you’ll see all year. I came into the series expecting a raunchy black comedy, and got that, but with the added bonus of something achingly beautiful when it wanted to be.
Waller-Bridge is new to me (I’d stopped watching Broadchurch by the time she joined the cast), but if Fleabag is any indication, she’s a major talent — as both writer and performer — whom I look forward to seeing much more from in the future.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org