The closest I’ve ever come to experiencing love at first sight was watching the 30-ish protagonist of Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) talk to us mid-bone with her 2 a.m. booty call, wonder after anal sex if she has a “massive asshole,” then jerk off to President Obama on another night with a different guy in her bed. All this happens before the five-minute mark of the series premiere, which feels like a sublimely filthy, London-set, one-woman version of Sex and the City. Until, that is, we learn at the end of that initial episode that Fleabag is grieving, albeit in her own way, by clinging to her immaturity and inability to take anything seriously. When her sister, Claire (Sian Clifford), leans in stiffly for a rare hug, Fleabag panics and accidentally slaps her. Immediately after, she attempts a hookup with the snaggletoothed stranger she met on the bus that morning. The only intimacy she can stand is to be alone with others.
Streaming today, the Amazon series dives into the bottomless comedy well of awkward sex scenarios with such world-weary precision and raunchy hilarity that it left me craving more. With her big, sad, Edgar Allan Poe eyes, Waller-Bridge’s frequently deployed WTF face is weaponized skepticism — a force we’re relieved to have on our side, because we’d be rightly terrified to have it used against us. “They’re so small,” one awestruck rando blathers about her breasts while she looks at us in shared bemusement. Flabbergasted, he’s left prattling: “They’re so fucking tiny. They’re hardly even there. Where the fuck even are they?”
Fleabag has a lot to say about contemporary femininity, especially about the death of seduction and the ubiquity of slut-shaming. But Waller-Bridge, who wrote the exceptional black comedy and based it on her earlier play, ultimately isn’t interested in a just-us-girls, Carrie Bradshaw–esque everywoman POV. Her antiheroine is caustic and melancholy and — as we discover at the end of the six-episode first season — an even worse person than she’s copped to being. Spinning away on her own planet, her idea of a romantic surprise is pretending to Norman Bates her showering boyfriend, Harry (Hugh Skinner). Eventually, Fleabag is forced into the rude and dispiriting awakening that her family considers her not just unpleasant to be around, but an untrustworthy burden.
“Do you want to be alone?” asks Harry as he breaks up with Fleabag for the umpteenth time. The obvious answer is no, but the person she most wants to spend time with — her best friend, Boo (Jenny Rainsford), whom we see in frequent and fiercely felt flashbacks — isn’t around anymore. Fleabag attempts to reach out to the high-powered Claire, a woman who’s so mastered her domain that she claims not to have farted in three years. Even without Claire’s repulsive husband (Brett Gelman), though, there are queasily compelling reasons why Fleabag and her sister can’t trust one another. The show’s one flub is Fleabag’s dad’s new girlfriend (played by Waller-Bridge’s Broadchurch costar Olivia Colman). Colman is crisply hysterical, and her character’s scenes make for a smart satire of the art world, but in a universe defined by sharp edges and guilty triumphs, she’s too broad a caricature of evil-stepmotherly passive aggression. With its metallic tang and proud vulgarity, Fleabag is a fresh portrait of female fucked-upness that doesn’t need antiquated villainesses to enthrall us with the dark side of the heart.