The Fleabag Effect
By Andrea Loftus
What’s the best way to get everyone talking about the titular character of your tv show? Remove her name. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s critically acclaimed BBC 3 show Fleabag birthed from a 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival monologue is all anyone can talk about - but what makes it so distinct?
It takes a while to realise what it is about the show that makes it so bloody good. In short, it’s a chaotic compilation of dysfunctional relationships where the characters are hysterical, often less than likeable and sex is the ultimate power play. This, however, is precisely what makes the show and indeed Waller-Bridge’s character so addictive, the way it’s all so shamefully relatable and refreshingly raw. And British. Oh so British.
The first season opens with a shot of a door, and the sound of a heavily panting Fleabag waiting patiently behind it for her ‘two o’clock on a Tuesday morning’ booty call, pretending she herself has only just gotten in. As she stares directly into the camera, she admits the reality preluding this moment involved getting out of bed, chugging a bottle of wine and shaving everything. The art of deception is a female sport, and we play to win.
Breaking the fourth wall has come leaps and bounds since the days of That’s so Raven, where one side eye to the camera would shake us to the core. Oh no, now Waller-Bridge has somehow transported the candid, reactive, often uncomfortable intimacy usually only found in live comedic performance and reformed it to fit perfectly alongside the brutally realistic narrative of the show. As the second series came to a close and Fleabag waved us off, she appeared ready to adopt a type of authenticity and focus unattainable whilst your mental and verbal discourse is split in two. However, then comes the question of whether she really ever was talking to us.
Illustration by Lily O'Farrell
When you’ve re-watched it so many times, what else is there to do but delve into theories on reddit? The intimacy that comes from the often-unnerving extremes Fleabag takes to partake in unfiltered sharing means we, as an audience, can’t help but feel special. The discourse created over the 12 episodes results in sensation that she’s comfortable enough to (sometimes unnecessarily) narrate things like why she’s taking nudes in the middle of the day behind the cashier of her vacant café - she trusts us. But during the therapy session kindly gifted to her by her father (ouch), she is confronted about whether she has any real friends at all and proceeds to stare down the lens, revealing a vulnerable dependency reminding us she’s not talking to anyone else but us.
With a string of less than stable relationships and a sister who sporadically loathes her, Fleabag is lonely. It wasn’t always so, as her right hand woman Boo (Jenny Rainsford) features heavily in flashbacks, during which Fleabag doesn’t give us the time of day, leading audiences to believe the fourth-wall narrative is spiritually dimensional and she’s keeping Boo’s ghost in the loop.
Illustration by Lilly O'Farrell
With a step-mother from hell (Olivia Colman), a shell of a dad (Bill Paterson) mourning her dead mother and a sister with a stick so far up her ass she could be a coat rack (Sian Clifford) – her family’s a hot mess and she is merely rising from the flames. After bringing her “almost too handsome” date referenced merely as “fucked me up the arse” to a family dinner, said date comments on how nice it is to be around a normal family. This ‘keeping up appearances’ performance is ingrained in the art of being British, a common trope subtly interwoven throughout the show, making viewers squirm as they’re repeatedly called out. As her sister grimaces at the “disgusting” sauce in a restaurant, when questioned by an irritatingly over attentive young waitress she joins in the familiar chorus of “it’s lovely”. Your meal could be raw, cold or physically repulsive but having the audacity to send it back, well the English rose would perish on the spot.
Season two picks up exactly 371 days 19 hours and 26 minutes later, where the boozy car crash we’ve come to love is squatting in parks, eating her greens and not having sex … at all.
Of course if you’re going to break your dry spell you might as well give yourself a challenge, perhaps fall in love with a charmingly blasphemous G&T loving priest (Andrew Scott), go up against God himself to get your man, shag a repulsive rape defence lawyer … and then the priest. Scott revealed in an interview that Waller-Bridge specifically wrote the role for him, and by God it’s perfect. The to-and-fro between the two is comedy gold, it’s natural but challenging, the perfect degree of crass elevated by the unbearable sexual tension.
The show is unlike anything on screen at the moment, not just because it’s on the verge of being too inappropriate to produce but only because it’s so fucking HONEST. Fleabag is simply embodying things everyone does day in, day out, but the difference is we don’t have anybody watching. Enjoy having a wank to Obama whilst your sweet but drab on-again-off-again boyfriend (Hugh Skinner) sleeps by your side? Sick of answering the existential questions boys think are irresistibly deep as you secretly wish he’d get to it? Proudly fart in a lift? Take a prank a little too far? Steal a twenty from your date’s wallet whilst he’s in the loo? Think you look irresistibly chic but to others you’re sporting more of a ‘walk of shame’ aesthetic? You’re only human, you’re almost Fleabag.
Although the finality of the second season is bittersweet, confessionals are busier than ever as audiences try and salvage an essence of 'fleabagginess' and corrupt some clergy. The not so typical female lead was always meant to be her own saviour, sure, she only needed saving from herself, but the act of rebuilding the fourth wall not only manipulates how TV production can be used but leaves us feeling lost. Maybe we were the ghost of Boo, maybe we were her extended subconscious, or maybe we were just millions of viewers left alone at a bus stop, feeling like proud mothers as our unpredictable comedic provocateur takes herself out into the big wide world. With no season three to look forward to, all that’s left for us to do now is kneel.
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