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‘Fleabag’s’ perfection proves Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s genius

Where to start with the smart, snappy and sorrowful show that is Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s 2016 to 2019 creation “Fleabag?” Originally a one-woman play conceived, written and performed by Waller-Bridge, “Fleabag’s” story translates seamlessly into genre-defining and boundary-pushing television. The show’s trajectory follows a young London-based woman dubbed Fleabag (played by Waller-Bridge herself) as she deals with grief, death, isolation and being human in an increasingly disconnected world. Along for the ride, and often contributing to the chaos, are Fleabag’s family members, namely her sister Claire (Sian Clifford), Claire’s husband Martin (Brett Gelman), her dad (Bill Paterson) and her Godmother/stepmother (Olivia Colman). Various other peculiar and human characters also flit in and out of Fleabag’s orbit, providing a narrow yet rich world for the viewer to inhabit.

And the viewer is allowed to inhabit the world, uniquely and thrillingly: Fleabag and “Fleabag” both break the fourth wall regularly, staring into the camera’s eye and inviting the viewer to exist intimately in this character’s story. She sees you, and by seeing you, allows you to see her, more so than anyone else who exists in her world. To see the character of Fleabag in all her messy glory, watching as her cracks reveal themselves, is to fall in love with “Fleabag” the show, just as to encounter Waller-Bridge in her normal persona is to fall in love with her. Waller-Bridge’s performance is so genuine, so truthful (even as she lies to herself), that it becomes hard to not over-project onto the character and feel as if we know her. Waller-Bridge is a great creative mind, and the only person who could carry the style of the show. It feels exceedingly special to get such a singular auteur creation from her. In my opinion, she deserves every accolade she has received.

The reason Waller-Bridge has been getting more recognition recently, of course, is because of the very strange way that the seasons of “Fleabag” were released. Initially, Waller-Bridge had an idea for a stand-alone story, contained in one season of six episodes, dealing with one woman’s grief and identity. This idea was released in the form of the first season of “Fleabag,” in 2016. It received critical acclaim but not widespread attention. The first season successfully brought this story to life, especially thanks to the quality of the cast and, of course, Waller-Bridge herself. One of these cast members is someone whom I have yet to mention but who deserves a great deal of credit in the first season is Boo (Jenny Rainsford), Fleabag’s best friend, who glows warmly and honestly from the screen, with characteristics of friends we have all had and ones we wish we could find. She is also significantly and intrinsically tied to Fleabag’s own issues and projections.

Three years later, the second and final season of “Fleabag” was released. From the first to the second season, there is a shift, not in tone necessarily, but a shift from a show dealing with the past to one more focused on the present and future, as the character herself is allowed to evolve. Just as Boo was the breakout star of the first season (and Waller-Bridge is the breakout star of the whole thing), the “hot priest” (Andrew Scott) was the breakout star of the second. At once sensitive and intense, the priest is lovely to watch. Also, no spoilers, of course, but the last shot is pure perfection, the faultless closer to the whole show. 

It was hard for me to conceive of or begin to write this review because “Fleabag” is so near and dear to my heart. I was afraid that I would be unable to do it any kind of justice, so please, if anything in this review spoke to you, just go watch it for yourself. “Fleabag” is clever, funny, sexy and inspiring but not sappy (but also sappy in the perfect way). It switches suddenly but artfully between humor and sadness, showcasing the connection between the two emotions both in Fleabag, the character. Humor and sadness complement each other, and here, their relationship makes for a heart-wrenching, evocative result. It is (who would have guessed?) unequivocally my favorite recent show, and it is one of my favorite shows of all time. I give it my highest recommendation. In fact, I have inspired myself during the length of this review to start rewatching it right now.

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