Fleabag is back – and it’s better than ever

Phoebe Waller-Bridge deftly sidesteps the difficult second album problem in an assured series premiere for the hit BBC3 comedy, says Huw Fullerton

Fleabag series two, BBC Press Centre

How do you follow Fleabag? That must have been the question writer/creator/star Phoebe Waller-Bridge asked herself when her self-penned BBC3 series became a word-of-mouth phenomenon back in 2016, catapulting her to global fame.

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Telling the story of a modern young woman whose sex life, emotional problems and family dynamics were frequently skewered by her own asides to camera (House of Cards/Iago style), Fleabag was a genuine cultural moment, a creative triumph and really f***ing funny – so how could Waller-Bridge possibly catch lightning in a bottle the second time around?

Well, she bloody pulled it off. Based on the first episode, Fleabag’s long-awaited return (how has it been three years?) is just as stylish, well-constructed and funny as ever – and even offers a little hope of redemption for our titular hero, who’s made a few life changes since we last saw her.

We catch up with Fleabag 371 days after series one’s gut-punch of a finale, and as the episode begins she’s been summoned for a family meal out which doubles as the first time she’s seen her sister and father since they both rejected her.

Essentially the entire first episode takes place in this dinner party setting (save for some very funny flashbacks), where Fleabag also has to contend with her odious brother-in-law, poisoned-honey godmother (the wonderful Olivia Colman, who has around 80% of the best lines) and a new character, Andrew Scott’s young priest, who may have a larger part to play in the series than he first appears.

Incredibly sharp writing and well-observed digs at family dynamics characterise what may be the world’s most passive-aggressive meal out, and the cast are at the top of their game. As noted, Colman’s brilliantly vindictive godmother is the queen of subtle put-downs, sister Claire (Sian Clifford) is more uptight than ever while (in a less quippy role) Bill Paterson’s Dad finds warmth and emotion in every line despite his inarticulacy.

By this point Waller-Bridge has lived in these characters enough to write them like a symphony (often doing so on the fly while filming, as she revealed at a screening for the new series), and the cumulative effect of it all is engrossing, shocking and slightly moving all at once.

This is a comedy first and foremost, though, and the laughs are where series two’s first episode really flies. In fact, it feels even more joke-stuffed than series one, barraging the audience with one-liners, cutaways and SERIOUSLY dark laughs (one may make you gasp), all building to an eruption of tension, horror and violence that caps everything off perfectly.

Coming up in the rest of the series we’re promised a new character played by Kristen Scott Thomas, the return of Hugh Skinner’s dopey ex-boyfriend Harry and even a Killing Eve crossover (Waller-Bridge’s other show) when the fantastic Fiona Shaw joins the cast, and I can’t wait.

Fleabag’s back, and it’s better than ever.

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Fleabag series two is available to stream on BBC iPlayer from Monday 4th March at 10am, and the first episode will air at 10.35pm in the evening on BBC1 that same night