Fleabag was one of the best television series in years. Based on the one-woman play by Phoebe Waller-Bridge I was lucky to see years ago in the Soho Theatre, it married comedy and tragedy better than anything since the heights of Alan Bleasdale, Dennis Potter, Mike Leigh or Victoria Wood. But those guys were just messing around at the edges compared to the first episode of the second series of Fleabag that has just hit the BBC iPlayer and will be playing tonight on BBC1.
Just as before, it carried its stage origins by having the main unnamed character, nicknamed Fleabag, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge address the audience constantly. Instantly, we get notes of Francis Urquhart, Francis Howard, and frankly, Miranda Hart, but in this first episode, they permeate the conversation like a machine gun, quickly turning the audience into her co-conspirators, as much a guest as anyone else at this table. as the evening spirals out beyond control.
Ah yes, the table. The first episode also reflects the classic British TV drama, Abigail’s Party, in that we have a dinner out with the family. Fleabag’s father Bill Paterson and upcoming-step-mother (and now Oscar winner) Olivia Colman, the priest who will be marrying them played by Andrew Scott, Fleabag’s sister Sian Clifford and her husband, and an overly needy waitress. And that is the whole episode and cast, the beginning to end of the meal out, interrupted by fag breaks.
The simpleness of the concept enables the dazzling display of wit, pathos, cringe, and sheer bloody-mindedness of a family at play, on the town, with a new person to perform to, with this cool sweary priest, and as much unsaid as it is said. Everyone brings their baggage and expectations with them,
It begins with two perfect pull-back-and-reveals in quick succession to each other, right out of Edgar Wright’s playbook, in a flashforward. Which gives the rest of the evening added tension, knowing where it leads. But, to be frank, it was full of it anyway. Fleabag is trying to behave, the expectations of what she would normally say are frustrated, the family expects her to act up, after seeing series 1, so do we. And she does – but only to us. To her family, she is the oddest thing there, her quietness marking her out far more than anything outrageous she might say. And, of course, life gets in the way and the best-laid plans of everyone are upended – unlike the table which remains clothed. Tabled get tipped but only metaphorically.
Time after time after time, the most perfect unexpected lines land, the editing cutting between eyelines, emphasizing the comedy and the tragedy often simultaneously. Everyone gets their moment to shine – or facepalm. It may be called Fleabag, but this in most definitely ensemble television. A masterpiece of television writing, editing, acting, direction, staging, all of it challenging the audience – who may have thought it all unnecessary.
That’s the thing, Fleabag series 1 was pretty much perfection, it never needed a second series. Everything unsaid was said – or never needed to be. So what was the point? There isn’t one. Everything that needed to be said, was said. But who f-cking cares? This is a chance to revisit some amazing characters doing hideous things, while all believing they are the hero of the story.
I don’t think I have ever seen as strong, as impressive, as dazzling an opening episode of any television series to date. Original House Of Cards, GBH, The Wire, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Sherlock, Spaced, I Claudius, Black Mirror, True Detective, all incredibly impressive. but nothing had me fizzing as this just had.
So, frankly, I don’t care if it is necessary, needed, or what the point is. It’s a story, that’s all, and Fleabag series 2 episode 1 is what your television was made for. In fact, it’s probably unworthy of Fleabag. If you disagree with me, you are wrong, I can prove it with graphs. I’m so glad that Phoebe Waller-Bridge didn’t take the lead in Doctor Who. Because this is so much better.
Don’t let me down, episode 2. I only have my entire trust in human nature and the entertainment industry as a whole riding on it. No pressure.