“It’s a love story,” the young woman says in the opening scene, after wiping blood off her face while standing in front of a mirror in a bathroom. Thing is, she says it directly to the camera, with a cheeky smile that’s almost a smirk.
The young woman is the central character in Fleabag, and the return of the series for a second season, which started streaming on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, is a major event. When the first season arrived on Amazon’s streaming service in 2016, the platform had a negligible footprint in Canada. The series, though, was universally acclaimed. And since then, the creator and actor playing the title character, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, has attained iconic, voice-of-a-generation status. She created Killing Eve, performed the original stage version of Fleabag to acclaim off-Broadway and is now polishing the script for the next James Bond movie.
The reason for the acclaim, in the matter of Fleabag, is its unique, assertory candour and wit. And part of the surprise element, crucial to that candour, is the character breaking the fourth wall. It’s a theatrical device and rarely used effectively in TV, with the notable exception of the original version of House of Cards. In Fleabag, the central woman’s frailties, urges and rages come straight from her mouth while she’s looking you, the viewer, in the eye. The disconcerting directness is, of course, female-centric here, and a reason for its power and shock value is the rarity of its bluntness.
Love story? Brace yourselves if you know nothing about Fleabag in advance. The first season saw Waller-Bridge’s character engage ceaselessly in anonymous sex to get through a rough emotional period in her life. Her plainly articulated thoughts on anal sex and masturbation, which still thrive in the second season, are funny but also meant to make you uneasy. To a wide range of viewers, the candour makes the character lovable. To others, new to the series, she will be insufferable at first.
Here’s the thing: Fleabag is at times riotously funny but essentially about an emotionally vulnerable woman who is permanently, secretly on the verge of a breakdown. She is brutally honest about her aching, debilitating need to be desired. Without that, she is nothing. You are invited to root for her, even as she behaves appallingly in private and says terrible things in her head that she shares only with you, the audience.
As such, Fleabag is unmissable as a feat of dark comedy delivered with a kind of panache that is utterly fresh. It is also very, very British. (It started as Waller-Bridge’s one-person stage show for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2013 and was then developed for a digital-only BBC platform, with Amazon Studios also backing it.) This second season essentially hinges on the approaching marriage of Fleabag’s father (Bill Paterson) to a woman who is in fact her godmother (Olivia Colman, a recent Oscar-winner, savouring the wicked stepmother theme here). The wedding planning means family meals and attempted niceness, even if Fleabag loathes her super-successful sister Claire (Sian Clifford) and creepy brother-in-law Martin (Brett Gelman).
What launches the storyline is, then, a very British kind of comedy-of-manners, with hostilities hidden behind politeness and rudeness being uncomfortably ignored. What Waller-Bridge does with a familiar British comedy trope is explosive. Also, there’s a charming, handsome Catholic priest (Andrew Scott) who will, naturally, cause no end of trouble for our anti-heroine.
Extravagant claims have been made for Fleabag already. It’s been called groundbreaking, a masterpiece, a feminist work of genius. Maybe, is the upshot. Approach it with caution. For all its brash cleverness, it’s about white, well-off bourgeois people. As one columnist writing in The Guardian observed wryly and rightly, the travails of Fleabag, the character, “gives posh people something to write plays about, and gets other people visits by social services.”
Also airing this weekend
Catch-22 (streams from Saturday on Citytv Now online, Rogers Anyplace TV and the Citytv app) is the six-episode adaptation of the classic anti-war novel. It was made for Hulu and produced by, partially directed by and starring George Clooney. Adapting a classic book – especially one drenched in deadpan irony and steeped in surreal, grim brutality – is risky. But Clooney and his team pull off a remarkably cogent version.
If you’re unfamiliar with the novel: U.S. bombardiers are flying missions in Italy during the Second World War and trying to stay alive. But the army bosses keep making it harder and harder to complete their mission and go home. Clooney himself plays the bombastic and maniacal Lieutenant Scheisskopf, who cares nothing for the body count among his men. Key character John Yossarian (Christopher Abbott) is the one who intuits the futility of the rules and knows the U.S. army is as dangerous to him as the enemy.
The final episode of Game of Thrones airs Sunday (Crave/HBO, 9 p.m. EDT) and will probably displease many. And note, an important sports fixture. In women’s soccer, Canada plays Mexico (Saturday, TSN2, 1 p.m. EDT) in its final match before heading to next month’s FIFA Women’s Word Cup in France.
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