Phoebe Waller-Bridge Ropes the Viewer into the Dark, Depraved, and Hilarious ‘Fleabag’

In one scene, the protagonist masturbates to a Barack Obama speech on her laptop while her boyfriend snoozes beside her; in another, she pushes him off her during sex so she can finish the job herself.

Fleabag’s heroine speaks to the camera before she speaks to any other character, describing the gentleman caller who will soon appear on her doorstep and whisk her away to her bedroom. A minute later, she’s narrating their ensuing congress to the camera — while we watch.

Played by creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the unnamed protagonist of the new Amazon comedy is a twentysomething woman who runs a struggling café in London. She has an on-again, off-again boyfriend (Hugh Skinner) whom she doesn’t particularly like. She has a chilly relationship with her father (Bill Paterson) and outright loathes the woman (Olivia Colman) he’s taken up with since her mother died a few years back. She only occasionally gets along with her uptight older sister, Claire (Sian Clifford). Her best friend, Boo (Jenny Rainsford), has died. Her most intimate bond is with the viewer, who’s present throughout every awkward sexual encounter and nasty comment she makes.

“That complicity was really, really important the whole way through,” Waller-Bridge told Flavorwire in a recent interview in New York. “That you feel like it’s just you and her.”

Fleabag began as a one-woman show that earned Waller-Bridge, 31, multiple awards when it premiered at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The BBC caught the show and commissioned a pilot for its online-only BBC Three channel. On Friday, the six half-hour episodes of Fleabag’s first season will be available to stream on Amazon Prime.

A TV comedy about a young woman engaging in bad sex and muddling through the wreckage of torched relationships and crushed dreams will inevitably be compared to Girls. (Here I go!) But the beauty of this moment in television is that for all its similarities to Lena Dunham’s HBO series, Fleabag isn’t really anything like Girls. It’s easy to feel smug while watching Dunham and her gang of self-centered urban strivers. But Fleabag’s heroine pulls the viewer into her depravity like the high-school friend you know is a bad influence but just can’t resist.

When Waller-Bridge wrote the stage version of Fleabag, she said, “I was relying so much on the idea that she’s the one and only narrator and everything she says you have to believe, because there’s no other evidence.” In the TV version, other actors embody characters she initially played herself. “That was the main hurdle,” Waller-Bridge said, “finding a way to keep her as an unreliable narrator but also have a believable world happening around her.”

Sian Clifford and Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Sian Clifford and Phoebe Waller-Bridge

Waller-Bridge’s protagonist is our guide to the world of Fleabag: We’re privy to her self-deprecating asides (“I hate myself”) and raised-eyebrow glances at the camera, commentary that goes unnoticed by others. As the series goes on, though, it’s clear that she’s hiding something from us. Flashbacks show happier times between her and her best friend, who recently died under circumstances that remain unclear until the final episode. “At the beginning she kind of wants the audience to be there,” Waller-Bridge explained. By the end, when we learn more about her and Boo’s history, she doesn’t appear too pleased to have the audience watching her every move.

Fleabag is not based on Waller-Bridge’s own life, but she describes the series as “very personal,” remarking that her character “is informed by the pressure that I felt as a woman in my twenties to be sexy all the time, and failing all the time.” In the first episode, the protagonist and her sister attend — and giggle throughout — an earnest feminist lecture. When the speaker asks the audience who among them would trade a year of her life for the perfect body, Fleabag’s hero is the only one to raise her hand without hesitation.

Waller-Bridge felt the scene, which she originally wrote as a short play, was “the quickest, most succinct way” to illustrate the confusion and exhaustion that many young women feel when confronted with the shifting standards of feminism and femininity. Fleabag’s protagonist doesn’t always say or do the right thing, but she’s unapologetically, relentlessly candid with the viewer — particularly when it comes to sex.

“I wanted to talk about the power of somebody seeming totally sexually confident,” Waller-Bridge said. “In the play I think that was one of the main driving forces — she’s just talking about the sex she has and making jokes the whole time about how outrageous and how confident she is and how voracious she is. [My goal] was trying to find that kind of arresting moment in the audience when they’re like, ‘Whoa, she’s more confident than other female characters talking about sex.’ I wanted to take her on a journey when she reveals what’s actually at the heart of that.”

That Fleabag’s sex scenes are played for comedic and not erotic effect might make some male viewers squirm. “I knew there would be some scenes that would kind of make guys a little bit nervous,” Waller-Bridge admitted with a smile. In one scene, the protagonist masturbates to a Barack Obama speech on her laptop while her boyfriend snoozes beside her; in another, she pushes him off her during sex so she can finish the job herself.

While filming the latter scene, Waller-Bridge said, “It was one of those moments when I was like, ‘Why have I written this for myself?’ And then afterwards, our first [assistant director] came up to me and she just said, ‘So true. So true.’”

 

Fleabag is available to stream on Amazon Prime on Friday, Sept. 16.