Although seemingly it is a truth universally acknowledged, we need to reiterate that Fleabag was one of the best sitcoms broadcast in years. From its three-dimensional characters to its liberation of sexual taboo discussion; from its meditations on grief and the modern family dynamic to its sexy priests (I adore that that oxymoron has become a buzzword in meme culture over the past few months) – Fleabag just about managed to be everyone’s cup of tea in some loose way or another. And the reason it has stimulated such a widespread phenomenon? Because Fleabag soothes us. It, or rather, she – soothes our existential dread about not having achieved anything of substantial value. The character functions as a sort of modern myth to assure us mere mortals that – don’t worry, no-one else knows what they’re doing with their lives either. And it’s this simple message’s reassurance which acts like a warm embrace, wrapping its arm round us as we let the next episode of Line of Duty roll over, feeling morally supported that we’re now watching for the sixth hour on the trot.
However, Fleabag wasn’t the first of these ‘myths’. In the modern generation of television comedy – and specifically British television comedy – there has been a chain of myths which preceded Fleabag. There have been a string of female sitcom characters who all use their flaws, and are very conscious about displaying said flaws, to make us love them and thank them for our newfound self-assurance. And we simultaneously laugh at and with them – comforted that we ourselves are not in these quite-often farcical situations, and yet paradoxically finding ourselves self-identifying. These characters are all bound by:
- Being women
- Being unconventional and often unsuited in the context of their employment
- Being initially in temporary situations which then accidentally become really quite permanent
- Having fractured or disordered love lives
- Featuring in British sitcoms in the 00s
The fifth pointer is so significant because the 00s embodied the realisation of this essential character trait: of not knowing what we are doing with ourselves. This is likely to be due to the narrower availability and effectiveness of the Internet, not yet being able to constantly provide us with streams of answers; of objectivity. In this pre-Smartphone era, there would have been a fearful consciousness of, well – shit, I’m gonna have to try and answer some of this stuff for myself.
And here are some of those ‘attempted’ answers:
- Jen Barber — The IT Crowd — portrayed by Katherine Parkinson
Jen is so assuringly relatable thanks to her relentless resort to bullshitting through life to impress or to avoid often awkward situations. ‘What does I.T actually stand for?’, she gets asked in Episode 3 of Series 3. Her retreat into the toilet (“I… need… to… wee wee”) to go and have a mini mental breakdown is what I’m sure many feel inclined to do when asked ‘what are the key narrative points of this novel?’ during a tutorial. It is this lack of fundamental knowledge on what is supposedly our main occupation in life which comforts our own self-diagnosed imposter syndrome. Her incongruous placement in the I.T sector highlights the bizarre ‘randomnesses’ that life will throw us, sometimes which is beyond our own human control, yet which more often than not ends up becoming what our life is defined by. For example Jen’s endearing naivety towards this monster to which she has given birth is beautifully executed in Series 3 Episode 4 when she reveals in a public speech that the world’s Internet is contained in one tiny box. The genius of this moment? Her audience believe her too – thus universally relating that everyone is sometimes blind to these ridiculous but totally human moments of senselessness. Also, it shows that sometimes, the crazy imaginative products of bullshitting can be to our advantage. It’s a creative process, no?
Jen’s wedging between the 2 actual I.T geniuses Moss and Roy – and in later series her central placement within the triangulation with boss Douglas Denholym – is genius because it reminds us that amid these super-humans nerds and/or weirdos, she is the normal one – she is the one like the rest of us! Parkinson’s performance is so wonderful because she completely reveals Jen’s wide-eyed bewilderment in the face of people fully absorbed in the world about which she doesn’t have a clue.
2. Daisy — Spaced — portrayed by Jessica Hynes
Spaced was one of the first British sitcoms to exist in the fully-integrated Internet era, and what I really enjoy about it today (now being nearly 20 years old) is watching retrospectively in a modern -millennial age, because protagonist Daisy completely possesses the biting self-awareness that these days is such a striking trait of humour in the ‘meme generation’. It is her self-parodying is what makes Daisy all the more relevant in the self-analytical humour which exists in 2019 – and which also, in my eyes, makes her this distant ancestor of Fleabag’s active consciousness. Daisy’s greatest turn has to be her quest to find a job (Series 1 Episode 3) – something so tragically relatable when being in the age bracket of ‘graduate’ (fuck). Like many of us, she has an ambition to become a writer, although, perhaps even more strongly like the rest of us – she’s not quite sure how to go about achieving this. She has the goal, she sees the future – although she struggles to see the ‘now’, the actual present moment and what she herself must do to move out of this stage of uncertainty, temporariness and blurriness.“Maybe I’ll just be the funny one in the office!” is what tickles me – a desire to have a career but not actually have to commit seriously and/or professionally. Also – Daisy’s first resort when she gets dumped? Gets a dog (Series 1 Episode 4). If that’s not a knee-jerk millennial reaction to a personal meltdown, then I don’t know what is.
3. Maggie Jacobs — Extras — portrayed by Ashley Jensen
Existential midlife crisis is perfectly personified in Maggie (although not sure she’d understand what ‘existential’ means. I mean, to be honest, neither do I – and I’ve dropped it in a few times in this already. Boom.) Maggie has trials and tribulations in just about every domain under the sun: dating, friendships, career, maturity in general. Getting told to ‘grow up’ by best friend Andy (Ricky Gervais) at the end of series 1 leads her to reassess the question that she had buried beneath the layers of this-or-that questions and inappropriate crushes – does she need to find an adult purpose? Or can she keep rattling along living in her own head, doing everything a little bit randomly and with no fixed finality? What’s important about Maggie is that although at the end of this episode she takes down a few of her hot celeb posters, when Extras returns for its 2nd season, she’s just back to being her same dopey, dilly-dallying self again. Goes to show that sometimes, our flaws are just an unavoidable part of who we are. It’s often like Maggie’s not capable of doing anything that’s not spoon-fed to her, and this is particularly relevant when we recall her pure bewilderment about not knowing what to say when the guy she’s seeing asks her to ‘talk dirty to him’ over the phone.
4. Tracey Jordan — Chewing Gum — performed by Michaela Coel
Chewing Gum is the closest to Fleabag if we’re taking a chronological view of British sitcoms. But there’s something about Chewing Gum which feels older than 2015, when it was first broadcast, because heavily-religious Tracey is seemingly so shut off from the modern world. Tracey’s fashion, mannerisms and total obliviousness slots it in well to this more mid-00s, pre-social media (and thus pre-collective-joke) vibe. What is so unique about Chewing Gum is its complete openness of sexual discussion – Coel creates a very tangible world where we can almost smell, taste and most definitely see every single one of her quite often disastrous introductory sexual encounters. What we relate to here is the hopelessness of Tracey’s love and sex life, because, quite frankly, she has no idea what she’s doing. Just like Daisy taking her first steps into the world at work or Jen being initiated into the virtual world of computers (or Maggie and phone flirting), Tracey’s walking into the very messy world of sex. This theme of ‘being a virgin’ seems also be a metaphor for being a virgin at life – it’s like we feel obliged by the demands of modern society to constantly seem like we’re enjoying ourselves (even if you’re feeling it can be as vanilla as a Carte D’Or soft scoop).
5. Dawn Tinsley — The Office — performed by Lucy Davis
Despite arguably not having the most laugh-out-loud lines (to be fair it would be hard to get a word in edgeways with Brent), Dawn functions the heart at the centre of the show, she is what makes it so real, so human. And she is literally placed at the centre: sat in her receptionist booth, she observes the ridiculous occurrings of the office around her. It is she who has the clarity of vision among the idiots she works with, but she is definitely not any more put together than them, not in a ‘life way’ anyhow. Dawn sees working at Wernham Hogg as a mere stop-gap; although only ever seeing it as a temporary measure, she is unsure about what she is actually going to do. Her true passion would be illustrating, but she’s plagued by that insecurity which afflicts us all – that of not wanting to strive for something ambitious due to that deep, ingrained fear of failing, and then social embarrassment about having to explain and defend yourself after. And so Dawn takes the easy, non-potentially-awkward option of staying in the office, even if it’s not what she wants, because – well, like in Waiting for Godot, the best comic content is generated from the fact that the subject can’t leave the place they’re in.
So voilà. Here are the women showing us how it should be done, or rather, not done. Or perhaps it is actually more apt to say they are showing us ways we can try – and fail along the way – to do it. And although that sounds a lot less pleasing rhetorically (I did try and think of a smooth way to slither that one out, evidently to no avail), these figures essentially tell us that we don’t have to worry. If we’re flawed, if we have no definite or stable career path, if our love lives are a bit fucked – it’s fine. I don’t want to end this by quoting a film that is the embodiment of 21st century capitalism, but these figures, these modern myths tell us ‘we’re all in this together.’ Femmes fatales, more like femme naturALS, am I right.*
* I know I’m not right. Please ignore this inherently unfunny ‘pun’. Let’s pretend this never happened.