The 2019 Emmys
“It’s so wonderful and reassuring to know that a dirty, pervy, angry and messed-up woman can make it to the Emmys.” I’d warrant you’d be just as surprised as Phoebe Waller-Bridge if the crew of a no-holds-barred dramedy walked away from the 2019 Emmys with no fewer than six wins and nominations.
The Brits had a bit of a field day at last night’s awards, with Fleabag and Game of Thrones taking the top spots — a total of 13 of the 27 accolades went to UK productions. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the Emmys better resembled the Brit Awards. But justifications of the hostless Emmys and their identity crisis aside, recognising talent is the most important part of any ceremony and that’s why Fleabag truly deserved its wins.
Snapping up trophies for Outstanding Comedy Series, Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), Director for a Comedy Series (Harry Bradbeer), and Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) — Fleabag made a lasting impression. As well as those, it received two nominations for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series (Olivia Colman and Sian Clifford). Suffice to say she owned this year’s celebrations.
Fleabag’s cultural impact
Fleabag is worth talking about because of the minor cultural phenomenon its set in motion. When the second series ended, all I heard on the radio were interviews with Andrew Scott, with fans torn apart by the show’s ending. Sales of lipstick and jumpsuits soared, while dedicated fans turned to their stylists to emulate her hair (just not a certain risky trim).
What’s behind its success? Well, depending on how you view it, Fleabag is either a highly cynical outlook on modern existence or just a realistic snapshot of one woman’s life. And while it’s female-led, I don’t think Fleabag exists just for women. The central character undergoes the same kind of heartache and bizarre occurrences in life that anyone might experience. Its universal quality — as well as an inventive approach to form and surprisingly tender treatment of an often hardened discourse of gender roles — is what’s made it so popular.
What started out as a one-woman show in the highly competitive Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2014 has exploded into a riotously successful two-season run. (The play’s still showing, but last time I looked, between getting the email and visiting the website for my local indie cinema, tickets had completely sold out.)
Alongside her work on Fleabag, Waller-Bridge has made a number of other stage and screen appearances. Indeed, the woman who penned Killing Eve — which itself won Best Lead Actress (Jodie Comer) and received multiple nominations — is hardly one to sit back complacently. Waller-Bridge’s talent for creating memorable characters even extends to the lesser-known series Crashing, a bizarre little comedy in which six people live together in a disused hospital. It all shows her fantastic capacity for imagination.
“A morally bankrupt woman”
If you’ve not seen Fleabag, all you need to know can be summed up in a single scene. Fleabag and her neurotic sister Claire visit a silent, female-only retreat for anger management issues. Next door, a male-only retreat is taking place for sexually frustrated men. ‘SLUT!” one of the men screams at a sex doll. Fleabag and Claire both turn around: “Yes?”
This self-confessedly morally depraved, sexually liberated, bi woman is trying to keep herself afloat in modern London in the wake of tragedy. Her history unfolds in retrospect, with flashbacks, like a whodunnit. The genius of it lies in the careful drip of details that only fully reveals itself at the end of the series.
No subject is off-limits for Fleabag: she accepts any and every experience that comes her way. Fleabag is at once in complete control and a depraved, selfish sex addict looking for cheap thrills anywhere she can. Traditional roles of men and women are subverted to fantastic effect, with Fleabag becoming some kind of post-feminist woman who will have one-night stands, leave when she wants to, refuse to let herself get affected by others — and then wonder why she feels so broken. The standout feature of the series was her frequent fourth-wall breaks. She’ll often make a dry comment and directly turn to the camera with perfect comedic timing (no doubt performing the show in person helped refine her technique).
While accepting her award, Waller-Bridge admitted that this success didn’t happen instantly: “I find writing really hard and really painful, but I’d like to say from the bottom of my heart that the reason that I do it is this [gesturing Emmy]. So it’s made it all really worth it guys, thank you so much.”
In creating a character whose vulnerabilities actually make her quite grotesque, Waller-Bridge has opened up a discourse about femininity in TV and pushes the boundaries of what we see as acceptable. Despite her flaws, Fleabag is so sympathetic because she could be any of us. She visits her father in the middle of the night in a moment of desperation: “I have a horrible feeling I am a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.”
The collapse of communication
The other characters in the story are what make Fleabag’s journey so colourful, torturous and real. Claire is far wealthier and more successful than Fleabag but is completely neurotic, a workaholic, and in the middle of a very unhappy marriage to flagrantly inappropriate Martin (Brett Gelman, in a delightfully squeamish role which is a far cry from his Murray in Stranger Things earlier this year). Their father (Bill Paterson) is an emotionally inarticulate man who, since the death of his wife, has coupled up with the girls’ artist godmother, Olivia Colman. (“She’s lovely, and a c*nt”.) Like Fleabag, he is nameless — I’m beginning to think this is a deliberate device employed to turn characters in everymen and everywomen.
Not forgetting, of course, the Hot Priest. Andrew Scott’s performance in Series 2 was perhaps the pinnacle of the show. He understands Fleabag like no-one else does, making his appearance a rarity. He is the only one to recognise her fourth-wall breaks, at one point physically shouting at the camera because he’s just seen Fleabag “go off somewhere” by commenting at the invisible lens. The interactions between the two look like they were a huge amount of fun to perform, bringing together as they do the meta elements of the camerawork with complete and utter conviction in their characters’ beliefs. I could write about his role at length, but perhaps the best thing to do is to watch the second series for yourself.
The ensemble cast has worked wonders to help Fleabag materialise into the character we see today. The chemistry between Fleabag and not just her romantic partners, but her father and sister, is tangible, loveable. Trying to articulate how she feels about her sister but unable to say it straight, Claire makes an offhand comment: “The only person I’d run through an airport for is you.” The narrative is obsessed with the collapse of communication and the things we’ll do to avoid absolute honesty, for our own self-preservation.
Fleabag at the Emmys
If Fleabag herself were to exist in the real world and stand on stage being awarded an Emmy, she’d probably react with hysterics, followed by heavy drinking and a night of debauchery. Like the rest of us, she’s not all that great at processing intense emotions and articulating her experience. I wonder whether Waller-Bridge, in creating this character, has taken on any of her mannerisms — or whether Fleabag was always just an extension of who she is.
It’s debatable whether or not the Emmys are the most relevant awards going, but I think Fleabag deserves its three wins purely to celebrate its messages, expertly-timed comedic delivery, and its painful honesty. Beyond just a quirky British TV show that’s become more popular than the average stage-to-screen adaptation — its frequent use of the fourth wall for caustic remarks, dangerously realistic moral ambiguity and superb performances make it unusually deserving of recognition.