When Frank Underwood turned to the audience during the first episode of Netflix’s “House of Cards,” a lot changed — for the series, for Netflix and for TV in general. His direct-to-camera references became a divisive point among viewers who either loved the power-hungry politician’s secretive quips or hated how he inexplicably broke the fourth wall. Yet just as quickly as the technique divided viewers, it became a favorite staple for a budding fanbase.
Thanks in part to “House of Cards,” but more because “Fleabag” handles itself with the confidence of a veteran series, fans will even more quickly embrace Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s private asides to the audience watching at home. Not only does the creator and star flood early scenes of the Amazon Studios comedy (originally made for the BBC) with these intimate moments, but by the end of just six episodes, the device itself pays off in a bigger way than “House of Cards” has provided in four full seasons.
I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, but “Fleabag” is such an exciting new series it’s hard to settle down long enough to appreciate its many impressive attributes. Based on a play by Waller-Bridge, the six-episode first season follows a cafe owner struggling with personal loss and professional disaster. To cope, she breaks up and gets back together with her boyfriend repeatedly and sleeps with whomever she can find in the meantime to avoid spending nights alone. She smokes, drinks and provokes people, all to avoid the painful memories we witness in telling flashbacks — but she does so with an addictive honesty that lends to understanding.
One gets the feeling early on that Fleabag — as she’s officially named in the show notes, which feature similarly descriptive titles as, “Arsehole Guy” and “Bus Rodent” — is insufferably lonely, and her few non-romantic outlets range from near-complete to total busts on the emotional support front. Her sister, Claire (Sian Clifford), is as private and composed as Fleabag is unreserved and unfiltered. She refuses or is incapable of engaging in her sister’s life the way she’s needed, but she’s still far more considerate of what Fleabag is going through than their father and step-mother.
Played by Bill Paterson and Olivia Colman, “Dad” and “Godmother” — another telling title, considering Fleabag refuses to forget her step-mother was first her godmother — are two of the most complex parents ever put to screen. Like the rest of “Fleabag,” their motivations become clearer as the show progresses, but characters who at first simply seem like bad parents soon become more than bad: They’re three-dimensionally bad, which is good from a writers’ vantage, just as it is thrice as painful for poor Fleabag (and Claire). Colman’s Godmother is severely passive aggressive, flaunting her control over Fleabag’s father with such astonishingly incisive manipulations that she becomes an utterly terrifying figure — the antithesis of Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, sent to punish a daughter for losing her mother rather than replace the loving matriarch.
Colman, of course, is pure fire. The current Emmy nominee has been on one helluva streak of late, and, in a perfect world, we’d get to see her MI-6 intelligence officer from “The Night Manager” show up at the Godmother’s front step and break her down as viciously as the Godmother does Fleabag. Waller-Bridge acutely creates this vehemency between characters, and it’s the subtle, sharp jabs between step-mother and step-daughter that help build to a fascinating crescendo in Episode 6.
But “Fleabag” doesn’t thrive on one dynamic: Fleabag’s relationships, from her sister to some guy she meets on the bus, are fleshed out with a precision enviable to most comedies. Not only do the series’ hard edits — both between scenes and to convey flashbacks — illustrate impeccable comedic timing, but they also serve to efficiently weave characters in and out of an ongoing narrative without betraying the authenticity of Fleabag’s day-to-day life. We get a broad picture of her life before we realize what it’s adding up to, and only upon reflection do you see the expert orchestration of these six episodes.
Much like “One Mississippi” — Amazon’s recent release from Tig Notaro — “Fleabag” slowly assimilates serious subject matter into a viciously funny comedic format. Without getting too spoiler-y, Fleabag’s motivations aren’t based in any kind of antagonistic baseline, and you learn about the various elements only when you need to, per Waller-Bridge’s clever adaptation of her own play. The dark content could surprise a few viewers, and the overall impact skews dramatic, but “Fleabag” should impress more than it shocks viewers accustomed to TV’s genre-less new world order.
The series’ release — timed a week after Tig Notaro’s impressive debut and two weeks before Woody Allen’s “Crisis in Six Scenes” — should also solidify Amazon as the home of fall 2016’s best new television. Even if Allen’s first TV series is as agonizing to watch as he claims it was to make, “One Mississippi” and “Fleabag” will more than make up for whatever disappointment new subscribers feel. The deep emotions at play in the latter will make you feel like Fleabag is speaking directly to you — even when she’s not.