One of the Best Comedies of the Year is as Heartbreaking as It is Hilarious

By  · Published on October 28th, 2016

Last week, Saturday Night Live parodied the idea of classifying shows like Transparent and Orange is the New Black as comedies, particularly for and by awards organizations. It’s not a very sharp jab at the trend, which has been joked about enough over the past few years, and anyway, there’s no sense in making fun of comedies that seem more like dramas when one of the best series of the year, released in the US last month, also has probably the greatest balance of laugh-out-loud humor and devastating heartbreak.

Titled Fleabag, the show is yet another hot import from the UK, yet it hasn’t been talked about nearly as much as the latest season of Black Mirror despite being more consistently brilliant and far less predictable. Following its summer debut overseas, the six-part program hit Amazon, where you can stream it free if you have a Prime subscription. Just set aside a few hours to view it in its entirety, not because it’s binge-worthily addictive but because it plays best as a cohesive work experienced all at once.

Writer/star Phoebe Waller-Bridge adapted her award-winning one-woman play of the same name, which was only an hour in length and first originated as a 10-minute stand-up act, and it ought to be a breakout for her talents. In the States, that is. Back home, she’s more familiar to audiences for her roles in the crime drama Broadchurch and another brief 2016 comedy series she wrote called Crashing. Imagine a British Jenny Slate who breaks the fourth wall constantly and is franker about sex than Amy Schumer.

Fleabag begins with a wonderful bit about anal, continues to shock hilariously with the main character masturbating to Barack Obama giving a speech, then… finishes out the first episode with the reveal that her business partner and best friend accidentally killed herself. The show can get dark, and sometimes it’s funny while other times depressing. Unlike Transparent and OITNB, it’s never heartfelt, nor does it involve big important issues. But it’s quite heartbreaking and substantial for a small, individual story.

It’s also more recognizably and classifiably a comedy because it has more structured laughs and due to the fourth wall breaking, which either involves commentary on the moment or a quick, silent glance at the camera, similar to the asides in The Office. Much of the humor, though, stems from and is filtered through the cynicism of Waller-Bridge’s title character as she deals with family, romantic partners both long-term and casual, and of course, the death of her friend and the resulting failure of the cafe they ran together.

Amidst the raunchiness that may appeal the series to a wide audience, Fleabag is centered on four relationships between women. Two of them with dead people. We don’t get a lot of information let alone a look at Fleabag’s mother, who died years earlier from breast cancer, but her spirit is often there, most directly in an episode involving a day devoted to her memory. The best friend/partner, meanwhile, shows up in flashbacks (played by Jenny Rainsford), and she grows in significance rather spectrally over time.

The other two relationships are with substitutions for those women, to a degree. The amazing Olivia Colman plays Fleabag’s mercilessly disrespectful godmother-turned-stepmother, and Sian Clifford is her uptight sister, with whom she has a genuinely complicated sibling bond. They’re exceptionally close yet extremely emotionally distant at the same time, and it’s probably always been that way but is likely more heightened since Fleabag lost the other most dear and intimate person in her life.

The series grows sadder as it goes on, but without spoiling anything it does seem to conclude on a relatively bright note. Not a happy ending yet also not the full-on bleakness you expect from such an otherwise sardonic show. It’s enough to also put it into the comedy category, given the genre’s traditional association with up endings. Still, it’s another series that makes the case that comedy and drama distinctions no longer work, for the labeling, discussing, or awarding of programs, as they have in the past.

Fleabag also blurs the line between television and film when watched in one sitting. Yes, it’s fairly episodic in format, but it’s also a singular, focused narrative that satisfyingly finishes in a way that wraps up arcs begun in the pilot. It’s the most well-contained miniseries this year after O.J.: Made in America, and if that documentary can play as a feature in theaters and qualify for the Oscars, something like this should have been able to, as well.

Thinking about its value in terms of awards shouldn’t be imperative, but it’s likely all the recognition fellow Amazon series Transparent received gave it some kind of a bump in viewers initially, even if with the acclaim it’s still not a big hit at all. Amazon in general needs buzz more due to its smaller audience compared to Netflix and cable TV, and that’s why after more than a month of Fleabag being out, it was necessary to finally write about it. If it’d been a weekly release series, it would have just aired the finale days ago.

I have to acknowledge it was the gang at the Fighting in the War Room podcast who sold me on Fleabag (initially recommending it two weeks into its release, then again two weeks later), which hadn’t otherwise been on my radar. But not all of us can jump into a series, especially to binge – no matter how few episodes – right away, and it took me time to catch up. Shows like this require legs. Hopefully, I can pass it forward and get others to watch, including colleagues who might keep the praise and conversation going.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.