Priests, Paedophiles & Punch-Ups: Fleabag Is Still The Best Thing On TV

Courtesy of BBC
Masturbating to Barack Obama speeches. Surprising your boyfriend in the shower by dressing as a ninja. Attending your godmother-slash-stepmother’s 'sexhibition'. On a scale of one to horrifically awkward, season one of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sadcom Fleabag was off the chart, but it was also a series about sadness, isolation and wondering whether you were a "greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman" (Fleabag was).
Sure, most viewers probably didn’t have a failing café or a dead best friend whose death they may have inadvertently caused, but the show supersized a very specific kind of millennial angst – the feeling that although you might not be destitute, your life is stalling. That, as well as the fact that it was wickedly written (corkers include perma-stressed sister Claire telling Fleabag that "it’s really inappropriate to jog around a graveyard, flaunting your life") made it a hit with an ability to jolt from coal black to slapstick in an instant.
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And so on to season two, which comes after season one went from BBC3 curio to cultural phenomenon, even in the US, and Waller-Bridge honed her brilliantly caustic writing style with Killing Eve.
This time around, she manages to channel the angst of the weird world we’re living in even further (yes, I know, every single piece of journalism is somehow linked to Brexit these days, but stay with me here). Series one debuted a month after the vote to leave the EU. Anxieties were high but we were still living in a world that seemed to make some kind of vague sense. MPs didn’t resign every four seconds, splinter groups weren’t hanging out at Nando's, and no one had had to suffer the indignity of watching the prime minister 'dance'. Since then, things around the world have degraded to such a bizarre level that the shows that are reflecting this topsy-turviness seem to be cutting through. Series two of Fleabag opens with a scene reminiscent of the beginning of the Natasha Lyonne-starring Russian Doll – Fleabag is in an ornate, art deco-style bathroom, dazed, with a bloody nose.
Like the Netflix series, we see the same scene again at the end of the episode, once we’ve worked out that Fleabag’s not spontaneously combusting but has been in a fight with her sleazy brother-in-law, Martin, who claimed that she seduced him at the end of series one. There’s also something generally foreboding about the entire episode, which takes place almost exclusively during a family dinner in which godmother-slash-stepmother (Olivia 'Oscars' Colman) dances between froideur and sycophantism with ease, and a priest comes along for the ride, too.
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There’s an odd tension – even before Dad erroneously describes it as a 'gangbang' – with lots of close-up shots and darkness tempered with trademark Fleabag deadpan-isms and Waller-Bridge’s fourth wall-shattering nods to camera. And in this upside-down world, there are hints that Claire may be suffering more than Fleabag, who got her loan at the end of series one and is now running a successful business. Not that Fleabag’s completely out of the woods – there’s also a therapy session coming up that will appeal to fans of Julia Davis and Vicki Pepperdine's agony aunt podcast, Dear Joan and Jericha.
And of course, there’s the priest, played by Sherlock’s Andrew Scott, who only adds to this sense of almost magical realism. He’s "cool and sweary", new in town, very attractive and out for dinner with Fleabag’s family…but he’s also a priest. Congregations might be at an all-time low and the Catholic church frequently besieged by scandal ("I’m aware of the irony", he says, after admitting his lorry driver brother is a paedophile), but the priest is still a symbol of virtue. Here’s someone with a purpose, who can’t use sex as a sticking plaster, and who is strictly off-limits. Well, kind of – this is, we’re told at the outset, a "love story" – of what kind, who can be sure. Could Fleabag actually have her way with a man of the cloth? Maybe even flirting with that scenario is enough. Besides, the swelling choral music which rises up every now and again, plus the fact we open with Sinatra’s "Strangers in the Night", almost gives a sense of parody to the whole thing (because really, Fleabag? And a priest?!).
In any case, there remains something very, very real about this show. It’s funny. It’s dark. It’s tragic. It’s weirder than Claire’s weird, bassoon-playing stepson, who isn’t even in this episode but pops up soon to creep everyone out. It is – and there is a lot of competition out there – probably the best comedy on TV for its ability to do so much in half an hour. Unlike its nearest US equivalent Girls, which slowly drowned in a stagnant pool of green juice and white girl tears, there’s a universality to Fleabag’s wayward narcissism and occasional redemption, in a culture that’s more individualistic than ever. Let’s just pray that in these strange times, she doesn’t start wanking to Trump.
Fleabag series two airs from 10.35pm on 4th March, BBC1
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