Colette Juran ’17, Editor in Chief
Over the past of couple of years original series produced by streaming services have flooded the Internet. Of these, some instant classics, like Stranger Things, have been born, while others, like Netflix’s continuation of Arrested Development, have failed to find their footing. In this competitive climate, desperate producers have adapted myriad source materials, sparing no popular book or cancelled television show. One of the most unique sources in this pool is undoubtedly Fleabag, Phoebe Walker Bridge’s one-woman play.
On paper, the idea of Fleabag may seem slightly overdone. The trope of “unlikeable” characters has been especially popular lately, with Hulu’s Difficult People or FX’s You’re the Worst receiving critical acclaim. This increasingly common trend of shows featuring purposely irritating characters may be attributed to viewers having become bored with characters whose perfection is exaggerated. As repetitive programming conditioned audiences to expect the Olivia Popes and the Jack Bauers as protagonists, viewers grew bored. Programming must defy expectations to be buzz-worthy in today’s cultural climate.
Therefore, viewers are apt to find characters with genuine flaws that mirror real life refreshing and relatable. The majority of the population is, in fact, very different from the average mainstream television protagonist. We lack eidetic memories and are not generally renowned architects moonlighting as secret agents. Consequently, characters who defy these conventions have become a popular addition to recent programming.
Whether Fleabag was influenced by these trends or whether it is simply a product of Walker Bridge’s life experience, it is necessary to analyze it within the context of both television found exclusively online and series with antihero leads. Unlike other comparable productions, Fleabag feels more personal due to the nature of its source content. Fleabag initially was shown as a play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a Scottish theatre event, in 2013. The forceful one-woman exhibition achieved the coveted “Fringe First Award.” The project’s universal critical success is also surprising as the play was an unexpected effort on Walker Bridge’s behalf. Fleabag was born out of material from a 10-minute performance of stand-up storytelling, underscoring the genuine feel of the production.
The unique origin of Fleabag contributes to the show’s individuality. By drawing on a relatively unedited stream of Walker Bridge consciousness, the show is able to create a plot that feels genuine. In the wake of Lena Dunham’s Girls, honesty is one of the most coveted qualities of television today. Unlike Girls, however, the show’s central lead is first and foremost alone, without three idiosyncratic friends behind her. In six episodes, Fleabag gives a snapshot of the life of the troubled protagonist, played by Phoebe Walker Bridge, who is known simply as Fleabag. Over the course of the series, the negative characteristics of the Fleabag’s personality are investigated in the context of various situations relating to her love life, friendship, and family. The series’ tone is aptly set in the first episode, where the Fleabag describes herself as, “a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.” Each of these attributes is accurately demonstrated within the first episode. These characteristics, although a critical aspect of the Fleabag, are eventually offset when the Fleabag’s positive qualities are reinforced. However, just when the viewer begins to feel that they understand the character, the show swiftly demolishes those expectations.
Stylistically, the show relies heavily on flashbacks and the Fleabag’s predilection towards addressing the audience directly. Her tendency to speak directly to the audience is reminiscent her own thought process, while the interspersed flashbacks evoke her stream of memories. Both of these aspects contribute to the authentic and personal atmosphere. The name “Fleabag” itself is telling, as the character is never once referred to by her real name by any onscreen character. This is indicative of her relationships with others, as the characters with which she interacts are typically members of her family. Thus, as the series evolves, one comes to both pity and relate to her.
Although the series effectively cultivates an atmosphere of honest emotion, it fails somewhat in its basic premise: to unblinkingly explore the Fleabag’s self-defeating traits. Although Walker Bridge’s character is indeed self-destructive, the collective narcissism of the rest of the cast dilutes the specific ills of Fleabag’s personality.
Olivia Colman’s role as the Fleabag’s perpetually grinning, disingenuous stepmother is so compelling that the Fleabag comes across as somewhat of a martyr for enduring her egotism. After watching the Fleabag, I immediately wished I could watch a series based mainly on Colman’s character. Older antiheros with more realistic merit than Walter White are basically nonexistent on television. This absence is perplexing as middle-aged characters communicate a range of problems shared by a demographic that has experienced fascinating and continuous cultural change throughout their lifetime. Yet, in spite of decades of life experience, Colman’s character demonstrates that age does not necessarily guarantee wisdom and an effective antihero can be created from any age or perspective.
Colman’s portrayal of the stepmother is not the only flawed personality depicted. In fact, the Fleabag’s ensemble is hinged on a shared set of common flaws. Most people face a host of aggravatingly selfish individuals in their lifetime, but almost everyone the Fleabag encounters, from her incessantly childlike boyfriend to her apathetic sister, is truly terrible. Thus, with such awful people in her life, the viewer is forced to pity the lead or at least recognize that her negative qualities are a product of her environment. In this way, the relationships between characters in Fleabag feel strikingly real. Each of the character’s problems and self-hate are permanently intertwined.
For anyone that has entered a television rut or simply wants to experience a heavier comedy series, I would highly recommend Fleabag. However, be warned that Fleabag is an example of television that presents characters starkly, and that the characters on the screen can be a disturbing mirror for reality. For these reasons, Fleabag is distinguished among the new series, and I hope will serve to inspire similar indie entertainment efforts in the future.