In the age of Peak TV, there are plenty of good shows. In fact, the quality scale has tipped so far the other way that most popular shows are good. That is to say, good writing, good performances, good direction, good production, good budget and so on and so forth. The market has become so competitive, there isn’t room for just ‘okay’ shows anymore let alone ‘bad’. So the arrival of Fleabag (2016–19) during the era of Peak TV is something to note, because it’s unanimously not considered a good show: it’s considered great. To quote Serena Davies of The Daily Telegraph, it’s second season in particular is “a near-perfect work of art”. That isn’t a comment in a vacuum either, it’s the consensus. Shows like Fleabag – that debut with a wave of pop-cultural awareness and praise, that make stars out of their entire cast, that sweep the Golden Globes and the Emmys, that spark social media memes, that end on a high note after two seasons before the audience has had a chance to be disappointed – they don’t come along very often. The current climate of prestige television has every studio and creative pushing their show as the one that is a phenomenon when the reality is something quite different (i.e. Westworld (2016–present), The Witcher (2019–present), other shows that don’t start with W). Fleabag is that rare beast because it never positioned itself to be a phenomenon, but that’s exactly what it is.
There’s not one reason for that, yet rather one hundred. The uniqueness of voice and singular creative vision of star, creator, and writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge is chief among them. The origin of the BBC limited series was a one-woman play Waller-Bridge performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013, which she later adapted for two seasons of television and another theatre run in London starring cast members of the series. One of the defining traits of Fleabag’s construction – both the play and televised version – was the central character’s breaking of the fourth wall. Consistently throughout the events of the plot, Fleabag addresses the audience with witty asides and additional lines of dialogue that allow the viewer further insight into the situation, her psyche, and true feelings. In the television series, which isn’t restricted by physical distance and placement of audience members in a live theatre setting, additional perspective is added through Waller-Bridge’s incredibly expressive performance. Whether it’s a grimace to the camera after a paramour delivers a rather gross line or an evil smirk as she commits to doing something mischievous, those gestures are framed and delivered in a way that allows for maximum impact.
Throughout the course of the first season and up to the closing minutes of episode three, season two, the only participants in that relationship are Fleabag and the audience. Other characters do not perceive her asides and are not privy to her interior thoughts in the same way viewers are. That is until The Priest (Andrew Scott), often referred to as ‘Sexy Priest’ on social media. After arriving at his door late in the evening, Fleabag’s burgeoning attraction to The Priest and his burgeoning temptation towards her leads to an outdoor conversation about life, faith, and their mutual but doomed attraction to each other. Over a few cans of gin and tonic, they decide to stay just “friends” with each other – something Fleabag notes to the audience is likely to last “a week”. And for the first time in the show so far, someone notices. “Where did you just go?” he asks, after watching her turn away from the present and towards us. “What?” she replies, flummoxed, while The Priest presses her on the matter. “You just … went somewhere – there! Where’d you just go?” She offers “nowhere” as a response, to which he replies “okay”, and Fleabag pulls a confused expression to the camera. If there’s a single moment in the show that could be considered critical, it’s this. Her confused – and slightly terrified reaction – is ours, because The Priest is the first character to see her, really see her. It’s the turning point for the character’s personal and emotional growth, with his breakdown of Fleabag’s walls allowing him to perceive the fourth.
– Maria Lewis