Fleabag Feels Different From Anything Else on TV

Phoebe Waller-Bridge as "Fleabag." Photo: Amazon

Fleabag unfolds entirely from the point of view of a depressed, sex-crazed British woman who, to quote something she says in the first episode, has “a horrible feeling” she’s “a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.”

During the six episodes in the first season of this British series, streaming on Amazon starting today after a run this summer on the U.K.’s BBC Three, that woman — nickname: Fleabag — proves to be all of those things. Because she’s played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who conceived this series from her play of the same name, she’s also funny, vibrant, blunt as a hammerhead, and, with each progressive episode, increasingly heartbreaking. Just as a narcissist who worries she’s too narcissistic is, by definition, a tad less self-involved — a true narcissist wouldn’t care or notice how her behavior comes across — Fleabag’s unsavory qualities are diluted a little by the fact that she obviously wants to change them and just doesn’t know how. It becomes clear pretty quickly that she’s broken, but we don’t fully understand the extent of the damage until the final half-hour.

Did I mention that this is a comedy? Of course it is, because every comedy these days is really about depressed people trying to sort themselves out! Actually, even though it’s easy to imagine Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag having one hell of a Sunday Funday with Gretchen from You’re the Worst, this show feels different from other programs currently on television or streaming platforms because it’s told so doggedly from a single character’s perspective.

Mr. Robot establishes a direct relationship between Elliot and the viewer and, especially in season one, largely explains what’s happening through his eyes. But even within that framework, there are scenes and elements of the story that don’t involve him at all. Fleabag, on the other hand, is told in what can only be described as Fleabag-person: Every moment is viewed from her perspective, nearly all of her thoughts are  shared through fourth-wall-shattering asides, and repressed moments from her past flare up via sudden flashes of imagery that, eventually, are fully explained. In a medium that's increasingly driven by (mostly male) auteurs, this is a refreshingly singular approach and a gamble that pays off because Waller-Bridge, who some may recognize from her work on Broadchurch, is such a charismatic, complicated presence.

Fleabag has issues with a lot of people and things — the various men she has sex with, the London cafe she owns and can barely manage, her widowed father (Bill Paterson), and her tendency to steal things, including a small sculpture of a naked female torso that serves as a running gag throughout the season. But the relationships that vex and challenge her most are ones involving other women, including her married, far more proper and polished older sister Claire (Sian Clifford); her godmother (a wonderfully manipulative Olivia Colman), a wolf in enlightened artist’s clothing who’s romantically involved with her dad; and the ghost of her best friend and business partner, Boo (Jenny Rainsford), who recently died under initially cryptic circumstances.

Still, Fleabag does her best to press on with life, masturbating to clips of President Obama; having sex with actual human beings, which she often narrates; going to feminist lectures (when the lecturer asks if anyone would trade five years of their life to have the perfect body, Fleabag and her sister are the only women who raise their hands without hesitation); and, in one particularly affecting episode, attending a mindfulness retreat where she and Claire are supposed to stay silent and, naturally, find that an impossible task.

Our protagonist can’t help herself. She likes to gab and we, the viewers, are her confidantes of choice. When she speaks directly to us or flashes a knowing glance in the camera’s direction, something she does often, Fleabag comes across like a bawdier, British Ferris Bueller or, perhaps more apt, a sadder, sexually franker Bridget Jones who doesn’t have time to write in a diary and therefore speaks her diary entries out loud. On other shows and in other movies, this sort of conceit can wear thin pretty quickly; House of Cards, for example, is always stronger when Frank Underwood refrains from glancing at and drawling into the lens. But in Fleabag, it works. The whole show is a study of this woman’s personality, and talking to the audience feels integral to who she is.

Because of Waller-Bridge’s delivery, that talking also can be funny as hell. During one particularly awkward family dinner, when Fleabag’s godmother asks how she met her newest beau, an extremely hot guy that, we viewers are already aware, has a thing for anal sex, Waller-Bridge shoots a quick glance to camera and drily says, “Fucked me up the ass.” It’s crass, yes, but also the kind of thing a best friend might whisper or text in the same situation, knowing full well it will make you inappropriately snort or guffaw.

That dynamic is what makes Fleabag such a pleasure as well as such a powerful portrait of grief and remorse. In every episode, this eccentric, messed-up soul is clearly trying to connect with anyone who is watching in a way that feels very personal. (She’s talking to you, just you.) But the unspoken reason she’s doing it is because she desperately, urgently needs someone to listen, and to understand her.