Ashley Spurgeon is a lifelong TV fan — nay, expert — and with her recurring television and pop-culture column "And Another Thing," she'll tell you what to watch, what to skip, and what's worth thinking more about.
Well, I did it — I finally watched Fleabag. I was hesitant to fully engage with the show for a long time, for a couple reasons. First, at some point over the past couple years, I did see the opening moments of the first episode, and decided it wasn’t for me. I may have actually said “Nope!” and turned on something else. My second issue was: I could never really figure out what the show was necessarily about, or why I should want to watch it.
I'm mildly concerned here that the rest of the article will make it sound like I didn’t like the series — I did! But I wish I had been better educated about what Fleabag — which aired in two seasons on BBC and Amazon — is meant to be. The marketing I happened to be exposed to (love to show off my blind spots) made it seem like it was mostly about a uniquely fucked-up woman called Fleabag (star/writer/creator/etc. Phoebe Waller-Bridge) who is constantly fucking up, and second only to Janelle Monáe when it comes to knowing how to wear black and white. The other thing I knew about the show was that the second season has a Hot Priest.
So I forced myself to get through that opening scene again, and in a lot of ways, forced myself to get through the first season, because I had been promised a Hot Priest. Did you know Fleabag is a very, very dark family drama? Don’t feel comfortable saying “dramady” here, because I don’t like the word, and also because the comedy is either very dark, very dry, or comes from moments of such deep characterization that it would be hard to describe why it’s funny. “Fleabag looks to the camera, but with an attitude you weren’t really expecting.” Sounds hilarious, right?
It’s a show about grief. Deep, deep, bone grief. It’s a show (I think?) about rich people — there were lots of aspects of Fleabag that were difficult for me to parse, as an American. Waller-Bridge comes from landed gentry, literally. The Fleabag character runs an unsuccessful cafe, but she doesn’t fear starvation, just failure. (And loneliness! This isn’t a show for rich people, it’s a show for everyone.) Her father offers her money, and we see that Fleabag and her sister grew up in a large, art-filled London home. Her sister is absurdly professionally successful, but is embarrassed about it.
The family dynamics are sometimes confusing to me, because I couldn’t tell if what we're being presented — say, a father unable to open up to his daughters — is unique to this family, typical of “posh” English families, or even typical to the British sensibility. (The sister being ashamed of her enormous office feels like something I’ve seen a hundred times before.) And the worst, crassest, most disgusting character on the show is, of course, an American. There are some serendipitous meetings that I think are a little too narratively convenient, and I don’t 100 percent buy how Hot Priest came into this family’s life in the first place.
But that second season! Waller-Bridge, posh girl though she may be, is a good writer, and the second series casts all of the first in a new light. Weirdly serendipitous encounters? Well, maybe it was God. The first season was about sex and death. The second season is also about sex and death, but from a more human point of view. It was a good idea to throw Catholicism into the mix. Hot Priest seems to be a pretty good priest (all things considered); his pastoral-care instincts are strong, and there's a unique sort of pain he is able to share with Fleabag.
It’s not a didactic series, and even something as inherently masculine as the priesthood of Roman Catholic Church is balanced with clear, ringing wisdom from older women. Season 2, Episode 2? Fiona Shaw as a straightforward therapist. Season 2, Episode 3? Kristin Scott Thomas as a successful businesswoman who is not ashamed of her success, and informs 33-year-old Fleabag that life gets so much better once menopause hits.
You don’t casually use Fiona Shaw and Kristin Scott Thomas as avatars of powerful femininity. Those are the heroes: Olivia Colman is the greatest actor of her generation (or at least one of my favorites), and she is brutal as Fleabag’s selfish, egotistical godmother, as big a piece of work to ever appear on screen. Waller-Bridge knew exactly what she was doing using actors of this caliber, in these kinds of roles.
Sex brings life, which brings death, which brings grief, and that can play out in a lot of ways. Fleabag is an imperfect engagement with that story (is there a perfect one? Hot Priest probably thinks so), as told from the perspective of Fleabag — a total fuck-up who is constantly fucking up in her own unique ways, ending her days by spending her nights wandering the streets of London in a daze, like millions of unique fuck-ups before her.
You can watch Waller-Bridge perform Fleabag — the one-woman play on which the TV show was based — in theaters Nov. 18.