Imagine this: your boyfriend tells you he thinks “surprising each other more” would help re-light the dwindling fire in your relationship. He starts off by making you a candlelit dinner. You reciprocate this lovely gesture by pulling a balaclava over your face and grabbing a kitchen knife…
This is just one of the wonderful scenes in BBC3’s Fleabag, a six-part adaptation of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s 2013 stage monologue about a young woman whose life unravels as she tries to cope with a personal tragedy.
Waller-Bridge’s character is broke, sarcastic, engulfed by grief, porn-obsessed – and pretending that everything is totally, absolutely fine.
From having awful sex with a man who repels her to stealing a prized artwork from her stepmother to masturbating to a YouTube video of Barack Obama, her experiences teeter between hilarity and bleakness, resulting in an addictive series about a young woman enveloped by the mess of life.
The balaclava scene – which is hysterically funny, and which you can catch in episode two – encapsulates the brilliance of Fleabag: you love her for doing it, but it’s also a real act of self-destruction. How to get rid of a boyfriend whom you stick with because he’s safe but you don’t actually love? Make him think you’re going to kill him, of course.
Just as Hannah from Girls or Meg from Drifters defy the idea that to be a lead female character you need to be likeable, our Fleabag anti-hero can be selfish, furious and unkind just like the best of us.
Yet her weaknesses only make her far more interesting and believable. You want her to be happier, to deal with her grief and to stop sleeping with that man who resembles a deranged otter. But you also love the fact that she slept with that man who resembles a deranged otter because it’s a deeply human, self-sabotaging thing to do.
It’s also easy to invest in Waller-Bridge’s anti-hero – and genuinely care about her – because she has lots of little asides where she talks to the camera, usually with a wry smile or an eye-roll. There’s an easy intimacy there which makes you feel you’re privy to something the other characters never get to see.
And talking of other characters, there’s a lovely – or not so lovely, in fact – turn from Olivia Colman playing a passive-aggressive step-mother who paints abstract portraits all night and says things like “Henryyyy, lovely Henryyyyy” in a whimsical tone when talking about Fleabag’s ex-boyfriend.
Waller-Bridge, who starred in series two of Broadchurch and her own self-penned Channel 4 sitcom Crashing, won awards for her Fleabag play – and the BBC3 series deserves some awards for its unusual, clever and brave depiction of a female world in disarray.
When the BBC3 commission of Fleabag was announced, Waller-Bridge said: “‘I can’t believe they’ve let me do this.” Well, I’m extremely glad they did.
Episode one of Fleabag is live now on iPlayer and continues on Thursdays