It feels daunting to even attempt writing a review of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s supremely smart and wickedly funny Fleabag, but it’s such an excellent show that I have to try. Among the recent rash of darkly comic series with liberated, tell-it-like-it-is characters, her powerhouse performance single-handedly shatters the rest. Speaking of, if you hadn’t already heard, Fleabag began as Waller-Bridge’s award-winning one-woman play, and after you’ve slammed through the six episodes, it’s abundantly clear what a phenomenal writer and actress she is.
From her expressive eyes and a face that somehow wears every emotion well, Fleabag (Waller-Bridge’s own nickname, though she insists the show isn’t autobiographical) prances through her surroundings with a knowing confidence; through a deftly and immediately broken fourth wall, she previews what each person — new and old — in her life is about, hilariously and (mostly) accurately predicting their actions and responses. In a remarkably candid and quick introduction to her life and rapidly-revolving paramours, Fleabag pulls us into the whirlwind of her experiences and immerses viewers in every increasingly cringeworthy encounter, somehow managing to make it all insanely funny. Sex, relationships, work, financial difficulties, pets, parents (steps, too!), friends, and death: from the second Waller-Bridge first sets an intense eye on you, you can’t help but be all in. And the laughter: oh, my gods, the giggling fits “Fleabag” will send you into, most notably during a last-minute surprise she pulls on hapless Harry, her on- and off-again longtime boyfriend (one friend said he had to stop the show for a minute during this scene so he could “laugh and laugh”). Even watching the whole run twice, two nights in a row — yes, it’s that good — I still guffawed so hard the tears rolled down my cheeks. To be fair, that particular gag is also well carried off by Hugh Skinner (Poldark). The series’ other gloriously bright lights include Olivia Colman’s smiling monster of a stepmother, aka “Godmother”, who spends every delicious onscreen moment either passive-aggressively digging at Fleabag and her neurotic sister Claire (Sian Clifford), or bragging about herself. No matter the (inappropriate) situation, Colman’s Cheshire cat grin is on full display, as is her hold on Dad (Outlander’s Bill Paterson). Father and daughter’s tenuous connection is one of Fleabag‘s beautifully poignant hallmarks, as is Fleabag’s flashbacked relationship with bestie and business partner Boo (Jenny Rainsford). Tethered only by small moments with Claire and remembrances of her angelic friend, Fleabag spends most of her time boisterously distracting herself — and us — from underlying truths.
Don’t mistake this show for just another dirty-talking Britcom, because it’s so much more than that. By seamlessly weaving in socially accepted, gendered behavioral norms, Waller-Bridge almost unnoticeably — from the bank manager’s careless slip to the brilliant, not-so-subliminal messages fed to split groups at a gifted retreat — calls attention to the casual everyday sexism accepted and perpetuated everywhere. From how we view success or failure to perceptions and reactions, your brain can’t help but hone in on the underlying universal themes Fleabag’s experiences cleverly serve up. Best of all, you’ll be laughing through the whole meal.
***Spoiler: Don’t read until after you’ve finished the entire series. Spoiler***
Fleabag also stars Brett Gelman and Hugh Dennis, and is available to stream on Amazon now.