One of the piquant pleasures of the British TV comedy series “Fleabag” is how its protagonist, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, insistently pokes through the fourth wall with the impish gall and smug impetuosity of a naughty little girl. She winks, crinkles her nose, smirks, grimaces, makes snide comments, all of it right at the camera, meaning right at us.
She wants us to be a part of her latest escapade, her latest squirmy moment, lest this young woman has to go it alone in her flailing, full-frontally narcissistic existence. As she says in the first episode, she has “a horrible feeling” she’s “a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.”
Well. Now. Really. She’s not that bad. How could we love her so much, empathize with her so fully, if she was such a steaming heap of debasement? Even her self-anointed sobriquet, Fleabag, is more fitting for a scuzzy homeless tramp than the bitingly charming London cafe owner she is.
Season one of “Fleabag,” which premiered in 2016, is streaming on Amazon, with season two on the way. From online posts, viewers either adore or abhor Waller-Bridge’s character, which she created from her play of the same name. (Waller-Bridge stars in and writes all of the TV episodes.) “Hate the protagonist … She has no redeeming qualities and is totally unlikeable,” someone groused, and that’s enough of that.
So she’s divisive. Aren’t some of the most interesting women multifaceted? Don’t they chafe while they charm, pepper smarm with snark, own a bit of Mother Teresa mixed with, say, Sarah Silverman? “Fleabag may seem oversexed, emotionally unfiltered and self-obsessed, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” say notes from the “Fleabag” play.
With her floppy pageboy fit for a ’30s Hollywood starlet, natty outfits and Skittles-red lipstick, our anti-heroine exudes a glamor incongruous to her unsavory descriptives. Though she’s too surly to be screwball, she often recalls the great comedians of yore with kaleidoscopic facial expressions that match her shifting moods. Waller-Bridge plays light and dark with equal dexterity. She is a scintillating performer.
Fleabag has been called “an angry, confused young woman attempting to navigate life in London,” which is about right. Yet you can’t ignore her Olympian sex life, a tragicomic pastime that ends as these things do, with a droplet of satisfaction and a river of rue.
With a rich, unsmiling sister, a fun, like-minded bestie and a mostly off-again boyfriend, Fleabag, who’s on the cusp of 30, is still working things out. She’s painted as a classic self-absorbed millennial, playing the field and playing out with scant regard for the collateral damage. Ever-so slowly we watch her crumble, perhaps implode. The show slyly builds to a dramatic pitch that’s truly poignant and confirms that there is little superficial about it.
“Fleabag” is TV’s best comedy, better than my other tops: the cinematic if shrilly hyperactive “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” the near-perfect “Catastrophe,” the wry, wondrous “SMILF” and madly inventive “Atlanta.” (“High Maintenance” — you’ve slipped.)
Super news: Waller-Bridge is bringing the stage version of “Fleabag” to the SoHo Playhouse in New York City for five weeks, Feb. 28 through April 7. Waller-Bridge wrote and stars, and I have a ticket.
As a one-woman show, she’ll be addressing the audience face-to-face, the fourth wall totally disassembled, the rubble kicked to the side. It should be tartly hilarious, cheeky and racy, and fantastically uncomfortable — just like the staggering series.