Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: What’s the best current, non-canceled show created by a woman or non-binary person?
If we’ve all said Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s “Fleabag,” I would not be surprised. The show’s second season is incredible. And that’s not just recency bias. Phoebe Waller-Bridge is one of the smartest and funniest people working in television and film today, and the new season reflects that. Let me tell you a quick story: I was late to Season 2 because of other work commitments, and I kept thinking everyone must be overselling the new season. I thought there was no way it was as good as everyone was saying it was because 1) I am a cynical person, and 2) when does that ever actually happen? When does anything actually live up to the hype? Well, “Fleabag’s” second season is easily the best thing I’ve watched all year, and I have also watched “Deadwood: The Movie” more than once. “Fleabag” made me laugh uncontrollably. It made me fall madly in love in just six episodes. And then it shattered my heart with its crushing but perfect final moments. I rewatched the entire season just one day after first bingeing it in one sitting. There is still a long, long, long way to go before Hollywood reaches anything remotely resembling equality, but I have to hope that the quality and success of a show like “Fleabag” might be able to move the needle just a bit further in the right direction by showing just what can be accomplished if people are given the opportunity. I’m probably being naive, but being cynical all the time hasn’t helped much either.
The most sobering thing about this exercise, is that it reminds you of how few women are actually working at the highest levels of television, creating the ambitious, creative stuff we critics salivate over. My first two picks are also pretty obvious and they’re created by the same woman: Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s “Killing Eve” and “Fleabag.” It’s a testament to her talent that Waller-Bridge could be the creative spark behind two such disparate stories — one, the tale of a female killer and a government agent drawn to each other, another the story of a supremely dysfunctional woman struggling with grief, love and pain in a continually surprising and creative narrative. I remain a huge fan of Facebook Watch’s underseen show “Sorry for Your Loss,” a compelling look at the grief of a young widow created by playwright Kit Steinkellner. And, to throw a curveball here, I’m going to give a shout-out to “The Daily Show,” which was created by two women, Madeleine Smithberg and Lizz Winstead, before it morphed into a starring vehicle for two very funny male comics, Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah. Sometimes, the best thing you can do to support female creators is just to continuously acknowledge when they have created something powerful and lasting.
There are truly many greats, but for me it has to be “Fleabag.” “Fleabag” is one of the most creatively, emotionally, spiritually satisfying series maybe ever, but certainly of right now. Phoebe Waller-Bridge had an outstanding debut with the series, and a seriously great follow-up with “Killing Eve,” but the second season of “Fleabag” is in another orbit. It gets under your skin and infiltrates your soul. You feel it, you experience it. The charisma of Waller-Bridge and Andrew Scott, the palpable chemistry between them, is of a level that should be studied. This is all without mentioning every other member of the cast, be they a regular (like Sian Clifford) or a guest (Kristen Scott-Thomas), but they are all perfectly paired with material that is so economical that it makes you laugh, cry, and feel fully flustered within the shortest and most effect possible timespan. “Fleabag” is triumphantly clever, experimental, and honest in a way that is beautifully rare.
I’m definitely going to push for “Tuca & Bertie” here. Not only is Lisa Hanawalt a dynamite animator and accomplished writer who manages to subvert expectations and crack fantastic jokes as often as she likes — it helps that she and her team build humor into the environments as well as the dialogue — but Season 1 forges a unique connection with its audience. Certain series manage to transfer whatever love comes from making it through the screen and over to their viewers. “Tuca & Bertie” can be as goofy and jovial as its bird world sounds, but it always feels sincere, personal, and warmhearted. There are an endless amount of attributes to fall in love with, be it Tuca’s pet jaguar or Bertie’s favorite TV show, and you can’t help but get swept away in the colorful, gorgeous world. Don’t miss it — we need more!
The best current show poll votes are supposed to be anonymous (I think?), but I voted for “Fleabag” last week, I voted for it this week, and will vote for it for the remainder of its eligibility. Its second season, created by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is just that great. So that should be an easy answer for this week’s lead question, right? It would be, except that Pamela Adlon is still making “Better Things,” and that show still has such a remarkable command of tone and tricky family dynamics, and that could easily be my choice. Or maybe I would want to cite “Russian Doll,” co-created by Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, which is currently leading the pack for my running best show of 2019 list, followed closely in some order by “Fleabag” and “Better Things.” In fact, my candidates for that year-end list are dominated by shows created or co-created by women: “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” (Aline Brosh McKenna and Rachel Bloom), “Jane the Virgin” (Jennie Snyder Urman) and “Broad City” (Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson) in their terrific farewell seasons; Starz’s “Vida” (Tanya Saracho) for making a substantial leap in its second year; Hulu’s “Pen15” (Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine) for making me howl with laughter while also finding painful emotions from middle school; “Tuca & Bertie” (Lisa Hanawalt) for one-upping “BoJack Horseman’s” trippy human/animal visuals while unlocking a lot of truths about female friendship; etc. etc. etc. 2019 has been a lousy year for women in the larger culture, but a great year for shows created by and starring women. And “Russian Doll” is the best show of the year, period. So I guess that’s my answer?
English giant genius Phoebe Waller-Bridge who gave us BBC America’s “Killing Eve,” and is also the “Fleabag” showrunner too. What a blend of noir comedy and dramatic twists she can craft. Phoebe’s aces in my TV book and I’m really looking forward to her HBO series “Run” with Merritt Wever too.
Two Netflix shows immediate jump to mind: Liz Feldman’s “Dead to Me” and Natasha Lyonne and Leslye Headland’s “Russian Doll.” Both shows are about women navigating life and death circumstances and both shows artfully combine serious emotion with dark humor. What’s especially great about “Dead to Me” is how it explores the new friendship between Christina Applegate’s Jen and Linda Cardellini’s Judy, which is built upon a serious, life-altering lie. The show manages to straddle drama and comedy, mixing both sad and darkly comic moments. “Russian Doll” has Natasha Lyonne’s Nadia re-playing her death at her own birthday party and in the repeat of the run-up to her demise, she finds a kindred soul in Charlie Barnett’s Alan and makes numerous personal discoveries along the way to figuring out why this is happening and how to escape the time loop.
While we just missed the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend window on this question, Netflix, Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler have provided me with a new answer thanks to “Russian Doll.” The time-travel show that gruffly dodges every trope and quibble like a chain-smoking acrobat, “Russian Doll” could’ve closed out with a single, near-perfect season. That the creators saw the genre-bending story as a three-season exploration of time and trauma means that we could have a few more years with hilarious dialogue, affecting characters, and an introspection all too rare in TV in general, but especially genre TV. “Russian Doll” isn’t obsessed with its mechanics, lingering more like “The Haunting of Hill House” rather than “Primer.” Lyonne’s voice is especially important here not only as a creator, but as the face of the show. Nobody else could sell such a complex journey while still busting enough guts to make a meme out of the lines, “Thursday! What a concept.” As good as 2019 has already been for TV, “Russian Doll” had the mixed blessing of being great early in the year – something we shouldn’t forget come awards season.
“Fleabag,” created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is the best show on the air right now and ranks high as one of my favorite series of all time. The series is achingly beautiful, so well acted and written it’s hard to believe. Some writer/stars (like Lena Dunham or Amy Poehler) are clearly better at either writing or acting, but Waller-Bridge is impeccably skilled at both.
Between “Fleabag” and “Killing Eve”, it’s absolutely Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s moment right now, but I might just have to give it to “Eve” for knocking out a stellar second season that keeps up its signature performances from Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer. Waller-Bridge’s acid-tongued spy show has had me gripped from the first episode, and while season two of “Fleabag” has spiced things up with some existential crises and Andrew Scott as the Internet’s favorite clergyman, it’s “Eve” that puts the showrunner’s wit to its most inventive, complicated use. It’s a big, swingy spy show that’s also rooted in one of the most intriguing female relationships on television, looping between introspective character drama and winking spy mechanics at the drop of a hat. That’s a wholly new, inventive energy that could only come from a talent as multifaceted as Waller-Bridge.
Both shows avoid predictable tropes which make them even more engaging. “Dead to Me” examines grief and loss with intelligence, sensitivity and humor while showing how Jen and Judy’s friendship is deepened by the bond they share. “Russian Doll” does a beautiful job of examining a more existential look at life and how one lives it. Lyonne’s performance is nuanced, thoughtful and very human. I’m already looking forward to the next season of both shows.
Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*
Other contenders: “Chernobyl” (two votes), “Killing Eve,” “Swamp Thing”
*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.