How BBC3’s Fleabag created a sitcom world with consequences
Phoebe Waller-Bridge's acclaimed series comes to an end on BBC2 tonight, and its unique subversion of British comedy won't be forgotten
I’m probably several weeks too late to write about Fleabag, the darkly funny BBC3 comedy from writer/star Phoebe Waller-Bridge which airs its final episode on BBC2 tonight. And yet, here I am. Sorry.
Still, I’m not going to talk about the explicit sex in the series, or the use of the female gaze, or the brilliant depiction of mental health issues, all of which have been written about so eloquently over the past couple of months. Instead, I’m here to talk about how Fleabag brilliantly plays with sitcom tropes to create a world where actions have real consequences, no matter how funny those actions initially were.
Much has been made of Fleabag’s superficial similarities to fellow BBC sitcom Miranda – a slightly posh woman who runs a shop and deals with her friends, family and love life while making numerous asides to camera – and apart from as a way to tacitly slag Miranda off, the crossover is useful in understanding what Fleabag does so well. Like Miranda, Fleabag gives us traditional comedic characters and set-ups like the wacky best friend and awkward family dinner – but then it takes them in a different and darker direction.
When we first meet Fleabag (Waller-Bridge) and the cast of eccentrics in her life, from dopey friend Boo and uptight sister Claire (Jenny Rainsford and Sian Clifford) to her comically useless ex-boyfriend and passive-aggressive stepmum (Hugh Skinner and Olivia Colman), it seems like these are funny and easily understood characters, who will be a sounding board for Fleabag’s scabrous musings on modern life.
But then almost immediately, we learn that we’ve been misled – Boo died prior to the series, and the scenes we’d seen of her thus far were disguised flashbacks. People can really get hurt in this sitcom, physically and emotionally. And from thereon out, the depth and real consequences of Fleabag’s world keep coming.
When Fleabag does something weird or unpleasant, or has a fight with someone, it leaves a mark. She argues with her sister about her marriage and you feel the real damage it does to their relationship, which doesn’t quite return to normal for the rest of the series. Her pining ex-boyfriend will always come back to her, she cheerfully tells us – but when she pushes him too far, he makes his first real exit. Even our hero is mistakenly operating under normal sitcom rules.
Later, Fleabag’s already-bad relationships with her godmother and inappropriate brother-in-law become more poisonous, with her desire to push their buttons resulting in verbal or physical violence from both parties as the series progresses. They don’t just shrug it off, and continue to be blandly unpleasant – they start treating her even more cruelly.
Hell, even laughing at a comedy character like “Bus Rodent” (a buck-toothed wannabe suitor for Fleabag played by Jamie Demetriou, above), a clueless idiot who is set up for us to mock, has consequences in a surprising moment of pathos.
“You don’t go through life with teeth like these and not know when someone’s pretending,” he says to our heroine, displaying a self-awareness both Fleabag and the audience didn’t give him credit for. Characters like that aren’t supposed to feel pain, or have an inner life – but this series gives it to them, and makes us complicit in underestimating them.
None of these interactions follow the traditional sitcom pattern and sort themselves over half an hour, or even over the course of a series – the resentments and unspoken truths deepen (to rip off Philip Larkin) like a coastal shelf, boiling over in the horrendous and deeply upsetting events of tonight’s series finale (also currently available on iPlayer) which sees the people left in Fleabag’s life leave her completely adrift.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag
Fleabag isn’t the first comedy to acknowledge real emotional and social consequences for its lead character's behaviour – both Lena Dunham’s Girls and Netflix animation BoJack Horseman spring to mind – but what it does so well is capture the authentic feel of that fallout, the sense of losing control and gut-wrenching sadness when a friend or lover is no longer on your side. It’s not afraid to make a funny imagined world also feel unsafe, uncertain, wobbly, just like our own.
And even in a show that includes anal sex, the c-word and frank discussion of suicide, sometimes that feels like the most subversive thing about it.
Fleabag concludes on BBC2 tonight (Sunday 25th September) at 10.30pm, and the whole series is currently available on BBC iPlayer