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‘Fleabag’ scratches an itch for comedy-seeking audiences

| Wednesday, September 18, 2019

JOSEPH HAN | The Observer

“I sometimes worry I’d be less of a feminist if I had bigger tits,” Fleabag says in the midst of a silent Quaker meeting. This scene provides the opening of the fourth episode of the show’s most recent season. As shocking as her comment is, Fleabag’s inappropriate outburst is perfectly characteristic of the lascivious humor and often-raised anxieties of this superbly crafted comedy series.

“Fleabag,” originally developed by playwright and actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge as a one-woman play for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, was adapted as a television series for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in 2016. Following the release of the series’ second and final season in April, London’s National Theatre brought the original play back to audiences for a one-night-only performance, filmed live to be broadcast to audiences internationally. Thursday at 7 p.m., “Fleabag Live” was screened in the Browning Cinema at the Debartolo Performing Arts Center (DPAC). But don’t worry if you missed it, the series is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

“Fleabag” follows the story of a 30-something woman navigating grief, self-hatred and a failing guinea pig-themed cafe in the midst of modern London. Through all of her trials and tribulations, Fleabag copes with sex — with her boyfriend Harry, with the “Rodent Man” she met on the bus, with an exceptionally attractive Catholic priest and through her Barack Obama fantasies.

The show features a cast of characters that both make up Fleabag’s life and make it unbearable: a seemingly perfect sister (Sian Clifford); emotionally absent father (Bill Paterson); dead animal-obsessed best friend (Jenny Rainsford); hot priest (Andrew Scott) and “The Arsehole Guy,” a hookup and serial womanizer (Ben Aldridge). Olivia Coleman’s performance as the godmother is particularly perfect as a horrifically smiley, erotic artist living with Fleabag’s recently widowed father.

Yet, what is most unique about “Fleabag” is that throughout the series its titular character speaks directly to the camera, telling the audience her true feelings when she cannot express them to anyone around her. The device is unconventional — though often hilarious — and allows the audience a window into the significance of Fleabag’s story.

The thing that is perhaps most genius about this series, though, is the honesty with which it discusses the difficulties of modern femininity. In the closing episode of the first season, Fleabag says, “Either everyone feels like this a little bit, and they’re just not talking about it, or I’m completely fucking alone.” Waller-Bridge’s performance is masterful, taking the audience from gut-aching laughter to solemn reflection in mere moments. The dirty humor and character-driven antics in “Fleabag” only add to the thought-provoking nature of the series, commiserating with modern women and allowing them a humorous outlet for their everyday anxieties.

Bitterly funny and unabashedly sexual, “Fleabag” is by its conclusion a surprisingly poignant portrait of a young woman struggling to find emotional intimacy and affirm her identity. This series is not only candidly funny but also a touching exploration of the difficulty of family, the complexity of love and the complications of modern feminism. If you are looking to engage with these ideas and to laugh loudly and unadulteratedly at the supremely inappropriate, “Fleabag” is the show for you. 

Show: “Fleabag”

Streaming Platform: Amazon Prime

Starring: Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Olivia Coleman, Andrew Scott

If You Like: “Killing Eve,” “Russian Doll,” “Derry Girls”

Shamrocks: 5 out of 5

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