The Big Sick
Finds that laughter-through-tears sweet spot, often in the unlikeliest of places.
Aside from empathizing with a person who lies, cheats, steals and even calls herself a "bad feminist," Amazon's extremely binge-able "Fleabag" requires two things of its viewer. One, to not mind that its title lead character breaks the fourth wall often, as some might think that narrative trick is a turn-off. And two, to like Fleabag so much that we'll follow actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge every step of this simultaneously raunchy and tragic life, as she is in every single scene, the whole six-part series about the current state of Fleabag's shit life. But if you're looking for some of the best entertainment you'll see all year (on a screen, or perhaps even in life), "Fleabag" is dark comedy bliss.
The pilot, available on September 16 with all other episodes and based on Waller-Bridge's award-winning play, is a great introduction to its excellent sense of humor. We get an immediate sense of Fleabag's refreshing raunchiness, as she has a 2 a.m. fling with a guy while talking about the experience right to us mid-coitus. We next learn about her shameless shallowness, when she expresses hilarious discomfort towards a man who hits on her on the bus, but decides to go out with him anyway (and then steals money from him that night while he isn't looking). The series drops us deep into her chaotic life, including her relationship with her uptight and less amused sister Claire (Sian Clifford) as they attend a feminist talk, and character-driven honesty becomes the barometer for its comedy. A few passages about her dutiful, overly emotional boyfriend (Hugh Skinner) don't work as well, especially as their on-and-off-and-on again relationship is too cartoonish.
That value of honesty is what shines within the series' richest attribute, its foundational sadness. During the pilot we learn more about two key relationships that she's recently lost in her life—her mother and her best friend, Boo—and we get a sense of how heavy that loss is in between every moment she's not distracting herself from it with sex or goofy antics. And we soon feel the tragedy beneath why Fleabag would steal money from her date—the London cafe she ran with Boo is now in financial trouble, and she can't even afford toilet paper. Even Fleabag's guinea pig-picture-covered cafe becomes emotionally complicated, as the pet rodent she got Boo is a constant reminder of Fleabag's loneliness. Many comedies use a dramatic subplot for balance, but with the case of "Fleabag," it's the gravity of everything in the story. Though it may win you over five minutes in with the year's best masturbation joke, it's first-and-foremost a brilliant dry comedy about life-shattering trauma.
As Waller-Bridge's hurting, hilarious story swiftly out-trainwrecks "Trainwreck," the breaking of the fourth wall creates a unique intimacy with her character. She includes us on funny asides, or without using words shoots us a priceless, perfectly-timed glance during an awkward moment. As the story sticks entirely to her perspective, it can only leap backward in memory, with flashbacks offering footnotes to her memories of Boo, expressing a heart that was completed with a great friendship and broken by an even greater death. Combined, the wall-breakings and abrupt flashbacks give "Fleabag" a unique stream of consciousness sense, all the more fitting for how the series wants to laugh about how ridiculous things currently are, but can't forget the past sadness underneath it all.
If Waller-Bridge wasn't already destined to be a breakout comedy star with this series, her acting could also languish in the silent film era. It's more than her Clara Bow-like hair bob that recalls the 1927 film "It," but the manner in which Waller-Bridge is so expressive with her exact facial expressions. She captures a range of complicated emotions when she glances at us with amusement or discomfort, or in other moments where an awkward grin proves to have many layers. The definition of "It" meant sex appeal for Bow, but Waller-Bridge captivates far beyond that—she's extremely sharp, intricate and widely empathetic. In modern Twitter speak, she upgrades that Clara Bow "It" factor to make "Fleabag" a supreme moment for "It Me" TV.
When it comes to television like that, with popular examples including Netflix's "Master of None" or HBO's "Girls," I think of a famous Lena Dunham line from the latter: "I think I may be the voice of a generation. Or at least a voice. Of a generation." "Fleabag" is not merely just a voice among those contemporaries but a distinct one, offering more than its already impressive factor of being highly relatable fiction. As it contributes fresh perspective to clumsy hook-ups or living with grief, the series boasts a singular tone, as defined by a brilliant, ballsy central performance. The huge, constant laughs that "Fleabag" will be known for aren't even the best part.