‘Fleabag’, the newest addition to the newly revamped BBC Three, will be judged as a continuation the genre of ‘girls’ comedy. A genre that’s led by what’s, sadly, still only small number of engaging female leads who deal candidly with sex (or, in Miranda Hart’s case, talk hysterically to camera about not being able to talk about sex.) What is refreshing about ‘Fleabag’, however, is its cuttingly clever exploration of character. Pheobe Waller-Bridge’s protagonist (nicknamed Fleabag) is really more of an antagonist. She’s self-destructive, manipulative, but equally, she is witty, vulnerable and has her striking moments of kindness. In episode one for instance, she helps a drunk woman who’s fallen out of her clothes and into the road, calls her a cab and then in a confused expression of loneliness asks if she wants to go home with her. She will, perhaps, prove to be the intelligent female anti-hero Caitlin Moran once demanded in a list of things women were waiting for to know they had gained equality (“a female hero who is as complex, odd and sometimes unlikeable as Batman, Sherlock Homes, or Holden Caulfield.”) Whilst offering the meme-etic ‘that awkward moment when’ crisis failure humour to which ‘millenials’ have become inured. ‘Fleabag’ does it with more intelligence and pathos than say, ‘New Girl’s’ cutsey, Zooey Deschanel who is just so weird and kooky in a way that’s just so safe, clean and daytime friendly that it feels like staring into a cultural abyss and makes one lose the will to watch.
‘Fleabag’ gains strength from its theatrical origin. It’s direct mode of address gives it its confessional style. That’s something that has indeed been done before, but in it Waller-Bridge retains the core of Fleabag’s original form – the Edinburgh Fringe monologue that was initially adapted from a ten minute debut at her friend’s storytelling group. This theatrical, storytelling element gives ‘Fleabag’ the psychological depth which can easily fail in sitcoms where character development suffers at the expense of plot. This feels more like getting to know someone through the anecdotes she tells rather than the tired problem–miscommunication-resolution form which holds so many potentially good programmes in the chains of a formula as successful as it is stultifying.
The timing is also what makes a comedic representation of a ‘millenial’s problem’s’ smooth where it could easily have been cringe-worthy, clunky and doomed to rely on hackneyed character types. Although some of these ‘types’ do appear, they are funny – such as the vacuous solipsist she meets on a bus. You can almost feel yourself scrolling past his crap Instragram posts as he enlightens the viewer with ‘browns are really my colour at the moment.’ And the timing is what holds ‘Fleabag’ together and makes her character so interesting; this is a woman dealing with multiple tragedies, yet her humour rarely loses its poise. Waller-Bridge’s ability to convey cruel observations, with such wry wit that her audience remain captivated and invested in her makes her like a modern Austen, albeit one who questions if she has “an enormous arsehole.”