Season 2 of Fleabag may never have been the plan. Breakout star Phoebe Waller-Bridge has taken three years to produce a follow up to her wildly critically acclaimed comedy about the aftermath of grief in the life of a modern, nihilistic (not to mention nameless) Londoner, and she claimed she would only bring the show back if she had a strong enough idea to continue Fleabag’s story. Season 1 ended on a tragic note, if one open to returning to her world. That return is, predictably, razor sharp.
The concept behind Fleabag has come a long way from a challenge Waller-Bridge undertook at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival to create a 10-minute monologue sketch for a stand-up comedy storytelling night, from which the character of Fleabag was born. When you watch that first season, which expands out Fleabag’s story to encompass the random coldness of modern urban relationships, friendships and middle-class families riven with all kinds of undulating bitterness, you see a dark yet sensitive heart behind the naughty, caustic comedy which draws you in.
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This is partly due to Fleabag’s narrative affectation – breaking the 4th wall. Waller-Bridge writes and performs the piece as a natural evolution of the concept that made Peep Show—in many ways the forerunner of the previous decade to the comedy Fleabag mines, if from a male perspective—so successful. Peep Show had the internal monologue allowing us as the audience to both understand and to a point relate to the tragi-comedy of its characters, while Fleabag makes us the titular character’s cheeky accomplice; she externalises that monologue and makes us complicit in events around her.
Few shows could get away with this but Waller-Bridge’s performance has such a sarcastic impishness it makes Fleabag impossible to dislike, and immediately the heightened-reality aspect of the series ingratiates rather than alienates. Fleabag is so much funnier thanks to the character’s quick asides and drawn out looks to camera; in this season premiere, at the point Andrew Scott’s unorthdox family priest drops a bombshell about his brother at dinner which stops everyone in their tracks, Waller-Bridge looks at the camera for *just* long enough to turn an awkward gasp into a belly laugh.
That’s the careful genius of Fleabag and, thankfully, it remains in evidence for a season premiere that was absolutely a gamble. Fleabag is one of those rare six half hours of comedy, in its first season, that is almost a pitch-perfect series you want to encase in chucklesome amber. You can understand why Waller-Bridge took her time bringing it back, even despite her developing career writing and producing huge hit series Killing Eve and joining the Star Wars universe in Solo; Fleabag’s second season could have been a shadow of its former self but this opener proves that won’t be the case. The edge is still there.
This is 25 minutes of comedy that has been extremely well earned. Season 1 sowed a whole patchwork of issues between Fleabag and her extended family which are now carried into a family dinner across the entire episode which crackles with tension. Fleabag’s uptight sister Claire (Sian Clifford) is burying her frustrations with boorish American husband Martin (Brett Gelman), while their bumbling father (Bill Paterson) is set to marry their hideous, manipulative godmother (the newly Oscar-minted and ever brilliant Olivia Colman). Everything is there and yet hidden and it twists, turns and rolls out with an incredible balance of hilarity and shocking sadness. Fleabag does so much in such a short space of time.
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You sense this second season, which could after all be Fleabag’s last if Waller-Bridge wants to ensure the idea doesn’t outstay its welcome, may see her character reach some kind of cathartic acceptance, possibly with the help of Scott’s priest – already a welcome new player in the tapestry boasting excellent chemistry with the woman of the hour. Whatever happens, on the strength of this opener, Fleabag looks like a show that may have been away a while but has lost none of its power.
Thank God and Amen.
Fleabag airs on BBCThree on Mondays in the UK.