The title card for Fleabag

Fleabag – hilarity powered by sympathy

Screen

Anyone turning to Fleabag for the first time cannot but help bring with them a whole parade of preconceptions about modern comedy as it tells the tale of the socially awkward singleton, the overly-open protagonist, the emotionally damaged and manipulative, dishonest and perverted owner of a guinea-pig themed café in London. The creator and main star of the show, Phoebe Waller-Bridge sets Fleabag up against contemporary cultural conventions as a way of subverting, manipulating and surpassing these to the point where the show takes on the odd position of being both intimately interlinked with the material around it, and remaining wholly distant from it.

The first shot of Fleabag’s world is a shaky look towards the door. We see Fleabag, the show’s eponymous protagonist, breathe deeply and nervously. The viewer occupies the uncertain position of either leaving or entering, of moving or waiting; her visible anxiousness can be felt, but where it is directed remains a mystery. The camera moves between the door and Fleabag once more before her head sharply turns towards the camera and she begins to speak: ‘You know that feeling when a guy you like sends you a text at two o’ clock on a Tuesday night’. The speech continues, rushing over itself as Fleabag recalls what has happened to her and why she is waiting by her door, what she is wearing and what she has drunk. Fleabag’s intermittent commentary towards the camera continues throughout her encounter. Not only is the scenario bizarre and hilarious, but her extended clause keeps the viewers in the position of the accomplices. We are the ones who ‘know what it’s’ like to see a man deeply emotionally moved by the fact that he has just had anal for the first time, and that you really are special because you let him. There are pieces of this encounter that will be widely recognisable; the awkwardness of one-night stands, the compliance of sex, the unexpected morning after. Simultaneously, Fleabag’s calling out to a world of people that have had the same experience can be seen as nothing but laughably ridiculous.

Fleabag is not living in a world free from repercussions…

The act of calling in the audience whilst also subconsciously calling out her own experiences as bizarre, allows the breaking of the fourth wall to overcome the stigma of shows such as Miranda, where a naughty look to the camera risks serving as a substitute to substance and content. Similarly, in slapstick moments such as Fleabag accidentally flashing the man conducting her interview by attempting to take her jumper off, it takes more than just a subtle wink or staged fall to escape. Fleabag is not living in a world free from repercussions: she fails the interview and is called a ‘slut’ in the process.

Nor does the script just skip over the moments where Fleabag turns to the camera, instead interweaving them in and around what is occurring on screen. When she shamelessly flirts with an unattractive and nauseating man on a bus, she laughs profusely at an awful joke and instantly turns to us to say ‘I hate myself’. The niggling truth of this is reaffirmed later in the episode where she becomes angry that the same man won’t sleep with her and yells ‘You’re pathetic’ at him before storming out the restaurant. There was no turn towards the camera, but it feels as though Fleabag is shouting these words at herself.  The scripting in this show operates on such subtle and clever levels that it encourages a focus on what is not said rather than what is spelled out.

The scripting reaffirms a relationship with Fleabag’s world that is both extremely intimate and wholly distant…

Later, Fleabag drunkenly knocks on her father’s door in the middle of night, every action and word screaming out for help without daring to ask. Her father responds to her self-deprecating comments with ‘you get all that from your mother’. It is a small joke, a small comfort from a family member, the faint whisper of a laugh on Fleabag’s face says it all. But at the same time, this is an expression of not-understanding, of shirking his responsibilities as a father. This is a statement telling Fleabag how utterly alone she is, and her smile quickly fades with the realisation. The scripting reaffirms a relationship with Fleabag’s world that is both extremely intimate and wholly distant, as both hearing everything but not being told anything at all.

Fleabag shares so much with the viewer. We witness all the dirty secrets and private habits, and are called to recognise these as our own. Fleabag’s continual shift to a position where she is observing her own behaviour and testifying to its universality only serves however, to further disconnect her from her own life. We may see ourselves in her, but Fleabag remains excluded from any sense of community. Our unity only heightens her isolation, one that, as we learn, springs from the death of her best friend. The true tragedy of Fleabag lies in her dislocation from relatability. Just like the first encounter we see, elements may present themselves as familiar but no one identifies with that exact scenario: it is here that she is truly and ultimately alone. Both the comedy and pathos of Fleabag rely on one another to survive and to power the show, a show that testifies to the ability of screen to say both what is there, and most importantly, what is not.