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'Fleabag' Is the Best Show on British TV About Being a Horny Young Mess

The comedy tells the story of a woman whose life is unravelling because she can't deal with her shit, but aren't we all a bit like that?

by Hannah Ewens
16 August 2016, 11:30am

Propped up in bed, Phoebe Waller-Bridge stares intently at Barack Obama delivering a speech on her laptop. Without moving her stony eyes, her hand reaches under the covers and she starts vigorously masturbating. A head appears from the other side of the bed. It's her boyfriend. He looks between her and the laptop. "I was watching the news," she says.

Even if you haven't had an Obama wank, you'll recognise the lazy way masturbatory material can arise in the most beige of places. And of course, appreciate that the BBC have acknowledged that women wank at all.

Scenes like this are the reason BBC3's Fleabag is so watchable. When TV tries to show a 20-something female character, it often holds back on vulgarity and cruelness, so falls short. The writers are too scared to take anything far enough for it to actually resemble your sex life or the paranoid, existential conversations you have with yourself. The women of Fresh Meat were agonisingly boring, Drifters relied too heavily on girls-behaving-badly gags, and in comedies such as The IT Crowd, Bad Education and Friday Night Dinner, female characters are used more to explain the male millennial neurosis than anything else.

Fleabag breaks through that. It's a story of a woman whose life is unravelling because she's unable or unwilling to deal with her shit. Waller-Bridge's character is broke and sarcastic, so immature and unlikeable that you can't quite place her age; she could be anything from about 25 to 32, but that's the point, isn't it? She, like us, is living in this millennial Neverland, acting out because she doesn't fit in any learned role.

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Originally this was a stand-up show at London's Soho Theatre, conceived and performed by Waller-Bridge, which probably why it succeeds in making you laugh. As is clear from her hilariously expressive face, she hates herself. Better yet, she acts on it with such compulsion it's uncomfortable to watch.

She has sex to fill a void inside of her, but also because she really enjoys it, hopping the lines of that familiar dichotomy. When her on-off relationship ends yet again, she swiftly works out how long she has to shag someone else before it's back on. When faced with the reality of her run-down business, she steals from her step-mum. When her boyfriend wants them to both engage in daily thoughtful acts for the other, she responds with jokes and insincerity.

People would rush to label this a feminist comedy and then retort that it's not representative of many women. And it's not. This is very middle-class north London and aware of that fact. Her character is born and bred in privilege, but Fleabag satirises that as much as it honestly admits it. The wealthy characters are consistently the most despicable. She is struggling to make ends meet, and despite having a father who could keep a roof over her head, he doesn't.

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Bill Paterson would win an award for most punchable face as the arsehole half-invisible father; Olivia Colman is perfect as the posho arty step-mother, whose outwardly warm and cuddly presence contradict her passive-aggressiveness brilliantly, and Brett Gelman (recently amazing as Dr. Greg Colter in Netflix's Love) is cringe as the pathetic, sexually frustrated husband of the main character's uptight sister. No one is kind to each other. No one seems happy. The only person who does seem happy is her dead best mate who we see in flashbacks, but she's gone and it was only half an accident.

After episode one you think it's going to be solely dry laughs ahead, but it'll have you hurting in the gut when she's crying on her estranged dad's doorstep to tell him she's realised she's a morally defective dick. He responds, of course, with apathy and bitterness, saying "you get all that from your mother".

Fleabagis only six episodes long and nearly over so it's mostly all on iPlayer to binge-watch. As a comedy, it's far from perfect, but along with Michaela Coel'sChewing Gum,Fleabag is one of only shows that's set out to capture the British millennial lifestyle without a focus on men. It's actually managed to pull it off, too.

@hannahrosewens

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