Tuesday, 19 May 2020

TV review: Fleabag, season 1, Amazon Prime (2016)

This hilarious show might need a bit of patience for some viewers to get used to (see tweet below), but if you stick with it it’ll pay off. It was originally produced for the BBC and was then taken up by Amazon, so you can see it on Prime.

I wasn’t the only one to be impressed. Rumour has it the Obamas liked the show (see tweet below).

The drama centres on a young woman living in London and while all the tropes are present that should make you want to hate her, the humour is garishly self-reflexive, so that at the same time as you laugh you are also aware that what you are seeing is designed to critique such people as those who criticise Millennials for being superficial and selfish.

In any given scene the filmmakers might be showing how ostensibly eccentric Fleabag’s conduct is while, at the same time, lambasting those who might take exception to it. She is, the filmmakers want us to know saying, quite sane. The butt of the jokes is not so much Fleabag as the entire community, especially when it rejects people who are true to themselves.

The jokes are sophisticated though for some the tone and content might be a bit challenging. Don’t watch it if you are put off by scatology. I somehow doubt that the Obamas expressed a preference for this show – it’s possible but incongruous, if true – though something else surprised me while I was with it. On 11 May – at about the same time as I was watching ‘Fleabag’ on Prime – I was reading David Bowman’s ‘Big Bang’, a novel about the immediate post-war period, and came across this:
The only other establishments in Foggy Bottom were hamburger hideaways and fleabags where nervous out-of-towners took their tomatoes and paid for rooms by the quarter hour. (Out-of-towners screwed quickly, I guess.)
‘Fleabag’ is, like Bowman’s novel, a comedy with tragic elements. In one scene, in episode 2, Fleabag’s sister comes into her cafĂ© to buy lunch and orders a tomato sandwich. Fleabag asks if she only wants tomato on it and her sister indicates by her expression that that’s all she desires. The cost of the sandwich is 25 pounds. (When her sister makes a face to suggest that it’s a high price, Fleabag just says, “London.”) ‘The Big Bang’ was published in 2019, ‘Fleabag’s first season was released in 2016, so it’s a strange coincidence.

The novel is about the immediate post-war period but the show pokes fun at everything and anything, from the modern career woman (Fleabag’s sister, played by Sian Clifford) to the liberated woman (Fleabag, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), from Millennials (a mindfulness retreat is satirised in ep five; it was paid for by their father, played by Bill Paterson) to Boomers (such as his partner, Fleabag’s godmother, played by Olivia Colman).

Part of its demotic vibe comes from a plethora of smutty jokes. The popularity of porn has possibly never been depicted like this, and it’s there from the get-go with, in the first episode, a man doing something rather indelicate to Fleabag and then, tenderly stroking her hair, thanking her for the privilege with a kind of schmaltzy aplomb that wants to be endearing and so is doubly ridiculous. By treading a very fine line – like someone on tiptoe skirting a ledge on the outside of a building – the filmmakers are always on the very cusp of allowing the production to implode and turn into slapstick – or plunge into the street. Some of the mindfulness retreat scenes are a bit obvious in their intent, but ‘Fleabag’ contains good fart jokes, in episode three, where the eponymous character and her sister share memories of their late mother.

The show offers people a convenient shorthand for a whole range of conduct that they might otherwise have trouble discussing. Because it’s all inside your head there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Instead of mentioning sodomy or mendacity within the family, you can just ask, “Did you watch ’Fleabag’?” If the answer is “Yes” then you have already made a meaningful connection, and might even have an opportunity to laugh together with your friend or acquaintance or relative about a particular gag that caught your fancy. It’s like one of those porcelain figures that doctors used to use in China before the revolution, which gave patients a chance to point at a part of the body rather than actually name it.

Fleabag’s straight-to-camera segues – riffing off a conversation she might be having with someone in the drama – are knife-sharp, demonstrating how quick the human mind is to judge. This speed is what sits behind our use of personas – masks that we wear during our waking hours to fend of adverse assessments on the part of others we meet – but these, in turn, are one of the objects of Waller-Bridge’s relentless irony. The objectifying gaze of the individual living in the community refracts in an endless sequence of gags that always delay closure. The show is best when they are multiplying and expanding, embracing the viewer as well. “Did that just happen? “Did she really say that?” “Now, she’s talking to me as if I’m in the room with her, but how am I meant to respond?”

The ledge tilts under your feet as you do double- and triple-takes. There’s rarely anything solid upon which to base the form of virtue, but in the attempt Waller-Bridge unearths pathos. While the show takes a look at such complex subjects as suicide and love, the viewer him- or herself is the real subject. By casting a light on a paradox – the flaw in the glass is what reveals the world’s true nature – ‘Fleabag’ is humanistic, going to the heart of who, as a species, we are.

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