The only bad part of the second season of Fleabag, the comedy written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is how inept it made me feel as a writer. I try my best not to compare myself to others and at this point I don’t even have grand artistic ambitions, especially in the realm of fiction. But when the screen went black on this season, which I devoured in a couple of days, I just sat on my couch and let it sink in for a few minutes, keenly aware of how impossible it would be for me to ever come close to producing something this good. Fleabag might be the best comedy I’ve ever seen.
What makes it so great? I guess it makes sense to start with Waller-Bridge herself, who is intimidatingly talented, not just as a writer of dialogue and characters, but as an actress with precise comedic timing who can make you laugh just with a quick look at the camera. Her titular character (real name unknown) breaks the fourth wall constantly, which is Fleabag‘s most distinctive narrative device, but it’s used differently than a show like The Office. Rather than purporting to be a documentary, this feels more like the character perceiving the audience as her friend that she can always confide in. Without giving away too much, her looks and quips at the camera end up tying into the season two plot in a piece of writing that is almost impossibly smart and perceptive.
The character of Fleabag is a great tragicomic creation; she uses jokes and sex as a way to mask her inner pain that comes from feeling responsible for the death of her best friend and the loss of her mother. She is essentially the black sheep of her family, who all mostly treat her like crap, particularly her insufferable godmother played by Oscar winner Olivia Colman. Her sister, Claire, is a fascinating character in her own right. She’s tightly wound, passive-aggressive and a workaholic, which is in direct contrast to Fleabag’s impulsive lifestyle that avoids responsibility. What the two characters share is that each has built up these different kinds of walls to avoid letting others see their true feelings, and their sisterhood is one of the more unique relationships on TV.
Fleabag faces a conflict with Claire’s husband this season, but her biggest turmoil comes when she becomes attracted to the young, cool priest who is working on her father’s wedding. This leads to an obvious clash of belief systems between the optimistic, religious priest and the atheist Fleabag, who has been through enough that the whole God thing is a tough sell. Again, without giving away too much, the relationship that forms here is fascinating and feels real despite its comedic origins, and the will-they-or-won’t-they tension had me about as nervous as I was at the end of Game of Thrones.
I’m always a fan of comedies that come with a healthy dose of sadness and bitterness, and this show might walk that line better than any other. It has all kinds of jokes: raunchy sex jokes, quiet observational jokes, character-based jokes — there’s even a pretty good fart joke. But its best moments are when the characters let their guards down and reveal their true feelings, and the show has moments that rival the pathos of any drama. Like the main character herself, the humor in Fleabag is what draws you in, but the impression it leaves is ultimately much more impactful than just a laugh.