As tiresome as it is hearing things called “the new ‘Girls,'” and — especially this week — as tiresome as it is hearing about “Girls” at all, you can’t toss ’em out of hand. Some of the greatest television being made, in the era of the Showrunner, does come down to one singular personality, and when that person is telling stories that we identify with and haven’t seen before, it’s easy to compare them to those who’ve come before… Even when the whole point is that you’ve never seen anyone like them!
It’s best to find them at the bottom of the arc of their fame, before they say the wrong thing in public or swerve right when you thought they were heading left — you can always tell who’s going to make it big by the particular flavor of their first fans’ ardor, and now with both Amazon and Netflix cosigning Brit genius Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s recent shows in the US, it’s time to talk about them both.
On Sept. 16, Amazon will release the sole season of “Fleabag,” the six-episode dark comedy based on star Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s play of the same name.
It’s an exquisitely designed show, full of intimately realized and relatable details of shameless (and shameful) moments. The knowing, conspiratorial writing and tricks, like the title character’s direct address to the camera, which usually feels like a riskier or stupider move, draw you into her world just far enough that the show’s narrative tricks and shocks — which start immediately and never stop; imagine “Mr. Robot” and “Girls” had a hilarious, hideous baby — not only thrill the literary fan in you, but yank out your heart before they’re done.
Or let’s say, the rug. By zeroing in on so many nasty feelings — guilt, self-annihilation, shame — and balancing them out with a perfectly bright, acidic triumph, Waller-Bridge is able to do an end-run around a lot of the kind of “girls behaving badly” criticism for which the bar, when it’s a woman’s writing, is incredibly low.
You still find people who would describe “Bridesmaids,” for example, as a grossout comedy, or believe Amy Schumer or Ali Wong to be shock comics. “Girls” has been dismissed every conceivable way, from every conceivable direction, but it all comes down to this idea that when a female character — especially one written by a woman — does anything unladylike, that’s the point of the joke. Not that women have bodies which, just like men, can betray them, no: It’s that merely by having a body, women must be trying to make a transgressive joke in some way, and that’s as far as we take it.
So what sets “Fleabag” apart? Much of it has to do with the title character’s innate kindness, and the subversive twinkle she gives even her worst acts and humiliations. By winking at us first, then slowly allowing us into her private grief and shame, the camera creates a unique intimacy. It can feel less like a screen and more like a mirror, as Fleabag takes her time opening up to us.
She’s forever talking our ears off with her funny, ribald theories and her specific, personal kinks and quirks — but when she is overwhelmed, or sad, or disgusted with herself, she won’t look us in the eye. The conspiracy is on pause, and we are no longer mates until she is back in her brittle, angry joy again.
It takes most of the story, but trust that there will be a point when we aren’t just watching her cry, again, for another chance at love lost; when we will not be uninvited, and stuck behind the glass: There will come a point that she will nod to us, with the tears on her face, and let go of trying to impress us, and finally let us in.
And it will be transcendent.
If that sounds good and you are bummed about waiting another few days, I have great news for you! The show’s predecessor “Crashing,” easily my personal favorite program of the entire year of 2016, has just gone up on U.S. Netflix, as of Sept. 1.
Another six-episode comedy, created and written by Waller-Bridge with equal parts awkwardness and insight, “Crashing” is an ensemble piece, about several “property guardians,” a British living arrangement in which renters are placed in buildings – in this case, a hospital – that would otherwise be abandoned to the elements (and criminals). They live there until the place is knocked down, somewhere between a commune and a perpetually thirsty group of human scarecrows.
While “Fleabag” is a character study – and a meditation on the ways an unreliable narrator and narrative rules can still be used to dramatic and emotional effect; and further, a way we use those same tricks to hurt ourselves, all the time, in regular life – “Crashing” is a six-character play in six acts, a sex farce; a bedroom comedy in the most structurally apt sense. This one sleeps with that one, this one wants the other one, this one is lying about what they want (or are they) and so on, and so on.
What such a formally structured, conceptually alive narrative needs, then, is truly amazing characters. And, again, that’s Waller-Bridge’s gift: Creating very specific, memorable, poignant people, and then filling those roles with very specific, watchable, truly compelling actors.
And even more than “Fleabag,” which is a bit flashy at times, “Crashing” goes the extra mile of lingering — obsessively; almost entirely — on their faces’ details, that specificity, the micro-expressions and complications and ambiguities of their relationships and emotions and reactions. It’s a three-hour tour of facial expression that would probably be just as effective emotionally, even if Waller-Bridge’s delightful, incisive dialogue weren’t in the mix.
While all the players are great at this game — the awareness of the incredibly close-up camera; the resulting necessity to play the reality of the emotion at all times – it’s worth pointing out the MVP: Jonathan Bailey, as the Chuck Bass-esque Sam, is capable of more expressions per second, each more devastating than the last, than anyone else I can think of, maybe of all time. As many times as I’ve watched the series now, it still takes twice as long as it should, because every one of Sam’s expressions is, in itself, a little bit of a long read.
He’s not alone, but it is worth mentioning, because while most of the characters are introduced pretty broadly, it’s Sam who is the emotional glue of the story, and knowing that going in helps you learn the rules of the show faster: If we’re meant to learn to care about Sam, the other characters are allowed to be pretty intense, awful, over the top or otherwise out of bounds: We know eventually we’ll come around on them, and understand them, love them, too.
As exquisitely crafted as Sam’s character and performance are, it’s worth equal time to mention the extremely complicated ties between Waller-Bridge’s wonderful, terrible Lulu and her best friend Anthony (Damien Molony). Lulu descends on his life like a swarm of locusts – or perhaps a first responder, chopping through the doors on her way to rescue him – and in the process of clarifying their situation, for us and for each other, they greet us with so many false-starts, pretenses, Britishisms, layers of lies and half-lies that they in the end they all seem to bleed together, creating a new sort of truth:
Opposite Day honesty, love notes in upside-down mirror writing. Double-negative love. Profoundly painful, horrifically limited and cowardly, and altogether too familiar.
What’s ultimately admirable about both series is the way you can feel Waller-Bridge challenging herself: Setting up screenwriting problems that are rarely, if ever, satisfyingly solved, and then solving the hell out of them. What results is powerful, human, ultimately healing and always hilarious, even through tears – but mostly it’s inspiring. Waller-Bridge has created questions nobody ever asked before, and then answered them all down the row, with a defiant focus on the shallow, the abject, the performatively feminine and sexually objectified.
Altogether, these leaps over bars we set for ourselves is a win/win for everybody. But it’s the grace and simplicity of Waller-Bridge’s approach that are the most inspiring: A peculiarly comforting, and steathily compassionate, sprezzatura that belies itself by asking, again and again:
“Things are a lot harder than we pretend they are, aren’t they?”
Which somehow makes it so much easier.