Before going into this review I should state that I have one major problem with Fleabag: other critics.
When the first series aired in 2016, one of the most famous scenes is of the title character played by the show’s writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge, masturbating to footage of Barack Obama. Similarly, the critics are so fawning in their praise of this comedy that in my head just about every single newspaper TV critic in Britain is secretly wanking off to Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
This has cemented an oddity in me, which is that if the critics are almost entirely in their praise for a new show, I tend not to watch it, partly because I’m scared that I’ll be hounded to death by Guardian and Telegraph readers if I ever dared say that the show is overrated. Surely not everyone in the industry likes it? It’s the same reason I’ve never watched Derry Girls, Catastrophe or This Country. There’s also that bit of me that thinks that deep down, TV critics like these sort of comedies because for them, the laughs are secondary to the drama.
Similarly, I don’t watch stuff that every critic just about hates, because I fear I will accidentally like it. Better to be in ignorance of Mrs. Brown’s Boys than to accidentally tune in and find out you actually find it funnier than the show everyone in press demands you should really like.
Anyway, as I result, I hesitated in watching Fleabag. I missed it first time around and all the praise if anything put me off it. I did see the original stage show at the Edinburgh Fringe, but apart from that I didn’t see series one until this weekend, where I binge-watched the entire thing in preparation for this review. Coincidentally, the critics are already complaining that they can’t being watch series two. Poor them.
For those like me who missed the first series, the show follows Fleabag, an unnamed sex-addicted woman who screws up her own life and those of the people around her, while trying to run a guinea-pig themed cafe that is struggling after her old friend and cafe co-founder Boo (Jenny Rainsford) died in a road accident.
Series two follows “371 days, 19 hours and 26 minutes” afterwards and opens with a pretty shocking scene. The first sight we see of Fleabag is her wiping blood off her face after being punched, and helping another woman (Maddie Rice) who has also been through the same attack. She then turns to camera and tells us that this is a love story.
We see that the other woman is an over-attentive waitress at a restaurant that Fleabag is dining at, in an uncomfortable reunion with her uptight sister Claire (Sian Clifford), Claire’s alcoholic American husband Martin (Brett Gelman), Fleabag and Claire’s Dad (Bill Paterson), their Godmother (Olivia Colman) who is now engaged to Dad, and a man who we later discover is a foul-mouthed Catholic priest (Andrew Scott) who is going to conduct the wedding ceremony. As the dinner goes on, we discover so more disturbing truths about the family, especially after Claire has a medical emergency which she is reluctant to discuss with anyone else.
It is certainly a powerful opener, with the sight of the blood-covered Fleabag in the mirror, and there are other gripping moments in this episode as the drama moves along. However, I going to do something that some people might find shocking – criticise aspects of Fleabag’s writing. Namely, why does Waller-Bridge fall into the stereotype of getting an Irish guy to play the Catholic priest, as if they can’t be any other sort of Catholic priest in the country. Not only that, but the priest reveals that he has just taken over the parish. The name of his predecessor? Father Patrick – what else could he be called?
Despite all this, I cannot say that I hate Fleabag. Of course it is a good show. It would be wrong to suggest that it is bad. Bar the above mentioned niggles, the writing is strong, the performances are engaging, and there are plenty of interesting ideas in it. You can’t help but smile whenever Fleabag does the same into camera. Disturbingly, I think there is a hidden truth in it, in that quite a lot of what Fleabag does and says is stuff I would do if I had the courage to do so. It might be why during the dining scenes, whenever one of the other characters was doing something awful, I was chiming in with Fleabag’s monologues.
Fleabag is good at what it is. It’s very good at what it is. The problem is that firstly the critics hype it up too much, and secondly people don’t seem to agree what it is. I think my main issue with Fleabag is that so many people, critics and websites (include the British Comedy Guide, for whom I also work) describe it as a sitcom, and I don’t think it is. I think it’s comedy drama, which is how Wikipedia describe it. When the show debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe, it was in the theatre section, not in comedy. Some critics label it as a “sadcom”. It’s not. It’s just a comedy drama you pretentious c***s!
But it doesn’t matter what I say. Yes, I agree that Fleabag is a good show and that people should watch it, but it won’t stop those in the press inflating their egos in self-promoting self-pleasure. You can almost hear a van load of Kleenex tissues being delivered to Guardian offices right now.
Fleabag is on BBC Three now and airs on BBC One on Mondays at 22.35.