Monday, October 14, 2019
Television Watch: Fleabag - Season 1
Of late, if someone is going to mention a television show to you, it often comes with a wild look in their eye I recall occurring most elsewhere when my glance would occasionally meet that of the Hare Krishnas who used to roam The Drag in the 1990's.
One does not "enjoy" a show anymore, they area devotee. They advocate for it. They seek converts.
So, lately, has it been with Fleabag, the short-seasoned show from England that, as was discussed at my house over the weekend, on paper, does not at all sound like my cup of tea. Self-immolating, possibly alcoholic and definitely caustic young woman behaves badly, who runs up against the people she loves, and who love her, with poor results. And does it whilst literally winking at the camera.
I mean, sure, fine, but is there at least a robot she drinks with? Then we might have something.
On the TV landscape, acknowledging the sexuality of women isn't new (Sex and the City debuted in 1998, Gen-X'ers. 21 years ago. And was part of a procession of now forgotten shows and movies), especially in prestige formats, and now takes up some space on cable networks like FX where shows like You're the Worst meet a lot of the same check boxes as Fleabag and cater to a demographic that squarely not-me for more than half a decade. Female-centric comedy films about drunk women having bad sex, etc... became a genre maybe 10 years ago. And, of course, shows about watchable, terrible people have been a staple since Seinfeld.
Add in that anything that takes place in England on TV gets double-bonus points for accents and our shared delusions about how we're all just misplaced continental metropolitans when we watch the right media...
It's with all this context that I saw the promos for Fleabag, considered the average person writing about TV online is a 25 year-old trying to pay off crippling student debt by binge-watching streaming services and pounding out think pieces on Vulture or whatever, and I sort of shrugged at the show. The kids may have degrees from Brown, but they haven't been watching TV and movies since the late 70's and, to them, everything is cutting edge and never-done-before.
And then... folks starting coming at me with the Hare Krishna eyes and asking if I'd seen Fleabag.*
I *liked* Fleabag. Not because of the literal winking - which worked infinitely better than expected - and, honestly, not because I found the characters relatable or even particularly novel - they aren't. Evil stepmothers and trying to connect with sisters aren't exactly untrodden territory.
Right right. There's not much new under the sun, but sometimes it's in the execution that a show soars. Sometimes a visual gag works so damn well, it's mindbending (I will forever have locked in my mind's eye Olivia Coleman's look of disappointment when Fleabag points out the correct statue of her father's penis among a wall of penii). Or take Fleabag watching the men shout at blow-up dolls - all the while the women silently clean.
The truth is, what you've heard about the show is (mostly) true. It's got terrific dialog and timing, and even if the characters could feel like retreads, there's enough there to make sure they get under your skin. I've no idea the name of the dippy documentarian Fleabag picks up on a bus, but he's so awakrd it hurts, and you can cringe and sympathize with him in equal measure. In what could be a thankless role, Olivia Coleman turns in a terrific performance of banal malevolence.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge is, of course, quite brilliant as creator and star. She's created a character keenly aware of both her surroundings and her own faults, the real shield she puts up is between herself and the audience, inviting them along and keeping herself and the facts at bay until they overwhelm her and we're let in. And as much as she lives in a zone of moral gray, that Waller-Bridge allows for some sympathy for the banker, and doesn't just cast him aside as another absurdity on her character's journey, is kind of remarkable.
And both in performance and choices she makes, she did provide me with genuine surprises for her own character, again and again, especially in the final episode of Season 1.
I still don't think I'm the demographic for this show, but it's enough of a piece on its own that I think those considerations are only interesting from an analytical or contextual perspective. And I get the enthusiasm, even if my eyes don't go quite as all glassy in the same way as some folks who light up at those two syllables... "Fleabag!".
Before wrapping up, I'll leave those of you who've seen the show with two questions that hit me about 1/2 way through: what would this show look like gender flipped? (and a second question) Assuming the show remained the same in content - how do you think it would be discussed?
*The trick to the Hare Krishna eyes is that it's also paired with a stiletto clutched in one hand, at least (mostly) metaphorically. If one hasn't seen the show, fine. They can proselytize. But if you have, you must return their fevered gaze with one of your own, begin the gushing, effusive superlatives and find inside jokes to seal your bond.
But if you have seen the show and not found it a transcendental experience, even if you genuinely liked it, you stand the chance of getting cut, man.