Female sex comedies have come a long way in the last twenty years. It started with Sex and the City in the 90s, challenging perceptions with open conversations about sex and relationships while remaining fairly traditional with its stars’ need to find the ‘right man’ and settle down. That seminal series inspired a new generation of female writers and performers like Lena Dunham, whose HBO hit Girls added frank confessions, awkward sex and post-millennium navel-gazing to the mix.
Fleabag (BBC3), written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, feels like the next bold leap in that evolution. Plunging us back into the confessional world of Bridget Jones, the show follows Waller-Bridge’s insecure 30-something as she navigates life as a single woman in the city. But rather than simply moaning about boyfriends and mean mothers, this comedy fearlessly tackles darker, more complex taboos that affect everyone. Almost as if women are just normal people too.
Opening with a scathing takedown of the late-night booty call, the script takes an angry, outrageous and often hilarious peak into the mind of a grief-stricken woman. In the vain of Girls and Channel 4’s Catastrophe, Fleabag is not a likeable lead – at least not a first. In her own words she’s a “greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman” who, at one point in the first episode, attempts to flash her bra at a bank manager (played by Hugh Dennis) just to get a small business loan.
But the brilliance of Fleabag is the way it reveals the heart and sorrow behind the gross comedy. As the series progresses, we learn how Fleabag has suffered multiple tragic losses throughout her life and slowly come to understand her crude, often downright bizarre behaviour (masturbating to a YouTube video of Barack Obama, anyone?) for what it truly is: the self-destructive act of a broken women desperate not to feel the loss of another loved-one. It becomes impossible not to warm to her.
We’re helped along by Fleabag’s charmingly cynical narration – a reminder of the show’s genesis as a fringe play at Edinburgh. The theatrical device not only acts as mean for Fleabag to make dry-witted asides, but also creates an air of intimacy. When Fleabag makes sideways glances down the camera lens you can almost see her heart-breaking, which is as much a testament to Waller-Bridge’s expressive, powerful performance as anything else.
And, in a wonderful piece of counter-casting, Fleabag’s passive-aggressive step-mum is played by the lovely Olivia Coleman. Despite its main character’s best efforts, there really is very little not to like about this funny, filthy and heartbreaking comedy.
Click here to watch the first epidote of Fleabag on BBC iPlayer