It must be just splendid to be Phoebe Waller-Bridge right now. Everyone from Joss Whedon to Lin-Manuel Miranda to Minnie Driver is talking about her show Fleabag. It is, on the other hand, apparently a terrible time for anyone who has finished watching the show’s second and final season. People are falling over themselves with praise, unable to ululate superlatives fast enough, swearing to give up writing since there’s no point even trying when something as stellar as Fleabag exists, simply lacerated with misery now that the show has ended and forlornly contemplating what’s left of their dull futures. I’m not exaggerating about the exaggerating: to quote the aforementioned Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, “how do I watch anything else or make anything else or live my life or breathe or feel or care.”
Fleabag was created in that resolutely British tradition where every TV show is seemingly competing to have the least output across the longest period of time. This series in its restrained entirety took almost three years to deliver us twelve episodes of twenty two minutes each. Phoebe Waller-Bridge is an undeniably talented writer, capable of creating complex characters with twisty personalities, and plots with precise yet unexpectedly devastating turns. If you, too, are feeling bereft and crestfallen at the snuffing of this show’s brief, flickering candle, and are yearning for more dark, women-led, quality writing for the medium of television, may I make a suggestion?
It’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a musical comedy about mental health and misleading romantic tropes! Before you argue that not one of those words sounds appealing, I freely concede that it’s not, at first glance, anything like Fleabag. Where Fleabag has quiet Anglo-repression, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend gives you colour, noise and American brashness. Where Fleabag delights in the subtleties of unhappiness, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend likes to explain the jokes with an emphatic wink. Where Fleabag’s tenure was clipped, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend ran for four seasons from 2015 to (coincidentally) April of this year, with a total of 62 hour-long episodes. Where Fleabag had an alarmingly charismatic Hot Priest, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend also has an alarmingly charismatic hot priest. Wait, what? Let’s explore further.
Both shows have titles that hold you at a distance.
The title of Fleabag is never explained or even mentioned in the show itself. It’s not a pleasant word, but does catch the eye and somehow conveys the simmering messiness that pervades the series. However there’s also a strange tenderness to it, as it has become a stand-in monicker for Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s unnamed lead character (and will be how I refer to her from here on.) The term “crazy ex-girlfriend” is used to directly describe Rebecca Bunch, the lead character portrayed by show creator Rachel Bloom, but as she argues back in the Season One credits, “that’s a sexist term…the situation’s a lot more nuanced than that.” It’s unpacked further as the show progresses, with the second season’s credits claiming “when you call her crazy, you’re just calling her in love” and the third season’s credits reflecting helplessly upon the mess that has ensued: “you do, you don’t wanna be crazy, to clarify, yes, no on the crazy — we hope this helps!” Essentially, Bloom and Waller-Bridge are setting you up for subverted expectations before you’ve even started.
Both shows play with reality and form.
Fleabag delights in breaking the fourth wall, which can undercut the tension or ramp it up spectacularly depending on which way Waller-Bridge decides to twist her knife, and it’s rather delicious receiving her droll asides or knowing glances in the middle of sex scenes, fights, or dull conversations. We accept it as part of the reality of the show, so it’s startling when the Hot Priest can see her attention sliding towards us, the viewers. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s brand of heightened reality takes the form of musical numbers which are presented as Rebecca Bunch’s way of making sense of the world, and they too become the show’s reality until Rebecca’s best friend Paula shocks us by finally asking the drifting-off Rebecca, “what are you doing?” As well as being exceptionally well-written and often note-perfect genre parodies about subjects you didn’t even know you needed songs for (Don’t Be A Lawyer, The Sexy Getting-Ready Song, I Gave You A UTI) the musical numbers are also a brilliant vehicle for plot development and the sublimely talented cast. And as a result there’s not many of the show’s characters who haven’t broken the fourth wall at some point.
In both cases there’s something about a protagonist being caught in the act of being a protagonist that’s completely disarming, but also an effective way of showing who really sees and understands them the most.
Both shows have one relationship that’s more important than the rest. Not necessarily the relationship you think it will be.
I love Fleabag most when she’s with her sister Claire, a character who makes you both cheer and cry “kindly, step on my neck!” whenever she fills the screen with her perpetual frosty vexation. Their often reluctant and largely incremental unity is immensely rewarding, especially in the series finale when Claire — aloof and taciturn Claire! — tells Fleabag, “the only person I’d run through an airport for, is you.” I think it’s important that this references a trope most commonly used in romantic situations — it shows that their relationship is the real happy ending (or as close as we get) of the series. Meanwhile, the very title of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend implies a heavy focus on romance, but through it all it’s Rebecca and Paula’s friendship that anchors the story and provides the show with its emotional heart. They progress through mutual codependency and willingly terrible decisions (Paula: “Face your fears! Run with scissors!”) but develop into something wonderful, based on trust, seeing each other’s potential and wanting nothing but the best for them — a true love story.
Both shows have their creators playing an anything-could-happen fearless self-aware yet exhilaratingly heedless lead.
You’re not necessarily supposed to like these characters or agree with their actions, but they are nevertheless unsettlingly compelling. (Rachel Bloom described Rebecca Bunch as a “bubbly Walter White” and there can most definitely be drawn a line between the two, as she creates more and more layers of frantic deception and lawlessness. But also romantic comedy.)
From “well, since we’re here” sex to questionable business ventures to bone-clenchingly awkward public displays of defiance, Rebecca and Fleabag barrel through life surprisingly similarly and their creators are not afraid to bare themselves in highly specific and not always metaphorical ways. Fleabag looks us dead in the eyes to narrate the anal sex she’s having in the show’s first three minutes, Rebecca gets taunted by her love interest’s yoga instructor girlfriend who claims “anal doesn’t hurt at all, most times I prefer it.” Fleabag is nonplussed as her lover yells at great length during sex about how small her breasts are, Rebecca sings a song called Heavy Boobs where she calmly and repeatedly instructs us that the titular body parts are merely “sacks of yellow fat.” Fleabag runs into a lover while shopping for tampons, and when he gamely says “I hope it’s a light flow” she replies “oh, it never is. It. Never. Is.” Meanwhile Rebecca breaks into a song called Period Sex. Think of a place, any place: they’ll both go there.
Both shows get dark, dark, dark.
Without giving away specifics, Fleabag and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are equally unflinching in their portrayals of where our brains can lead us and in their use of black comedy to process it. They also certainly don’t hold back on winding up a season in a way that makes you fall to your knees and cry “damn that is emotionally affecting quality television!”
Both explore the general difficulty of existence.
While they’re coming at it from different directions, both shows really capture the exhaustion that comes from just being yourself. There’s a fantastic scene at the end of Fleabag’s first season where she uses the word “fuck” interchangeably to mean sex and also “to ruin” and wonders if everyone feels like she does or if she’s completely alone. After all her wit and wry nods to us, she just comes undone, and the display of sheer emotion, of the grief, the guilt, of everything she’s been holding onto, is incredibly affecting. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is excellent at conveying the absolute tiring slog that is trying to get from day to day not knowing what’s wrong with you or how to even find out. Its exploration of mental health issues is unbelievably impressive, and there’s not much it leaves out, from the side-effects and surprising normality of Fluoxetine and Citalopram to that clouds-parting feeling of finally getting an accurate diagnosis.
Both shows have fantastic costumes.
It’s not all admirably accurate depictions of depression and anxiety! Look at Fleabag’s gobsmackingly good jumpsuit.
Look at Rebecca’s gorgeous “moving to West Covina” dress!
Both shows have incredible therapist played by amazing actors.
In Fleabag, we get the wonderful Fiona Shaw, (who would also collaborate with Waller-Bridge again on Killing Eve) who calmly and shrewdly takes in Fleabag saying things like “I spent most of my adult life using sex to deflect from the screaming void inside my empty heart” and “I’m very horny and your little scarf isn’t helping” and “I want to fuck a priest.”
Therapist: “Do you really want to fuck the priest, or do you want to fuck God?”
Fleabag: “Can you fuck God?”
Therapist: “Oh yes.”
In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend it’s the excellent Michael Hyatt (who you probably know from The Wire) as the long-suffering Doctor Akopian. She dispenses wise advice like “sometimes love isn’t a person, it’s a passion,” and “if you make an appointment and get help, I won’t press charges,” and admirably sticks with Rebecca despite little evidence that she’s taking any of this on board.
Both shows have disconcertingly unlikeable maternal characters played by amazing actors.
Fleabag is not only working through the recent death of her mother, but also her father’s relationship with her truly awful godmother, played by the stalwart Olivia Colman. She honestly seems like a sweetheart in real life and yet she’s so convincingly despicable in Fleabag, a testament to both the writing and her acting. In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Rebecca has a highly unsteady relationship with her mother who is both withholding and overbearing at the same time, played with stern gusto by Broadway legend Tovah Feldshuh.
Both shows have delightful continuity.
I love the recurring gag of the stolen statuette in Fleabag, it gets funnier with each subsequent appearance. The show also makes great use of its smaller characters — just when you think someone’s a one-off they’ll suddenly be quite pivotal several episodes later. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend does this on a much larger scale, with an almost Simpsons-like cast of extras and bit parts. The more throwaway the gag the more likely the show will reward your attention by picking it up whole seasons later, the more melodramatically questionable the behaviour the more it will have oddly real-world ramifications. I think The Wire is the only show that’s comparable in terms of the formidable long-term attention to detail and continuity and having all its chickens coming home to roost.
Both shows have — as promised — a Hot Priest.
The second Andrew Scott appeared on Fleabag as the sweary, self-deprecating Hot Priest, otherwise sensible people found themselves rushing to social media to blurt out uncouth statements like “he could break my fourth wall.” He has everyone positively frothing at the mouth at how exquisitely verboten he is, and I admit, I myself am not immune. I mean, he is astonishingly entrancing, isn’t he, as he tortures himself with his feelings for both God and Fleabag.
But excuse me, do you have a minute to talk about the Good News that is Rene Gube as Father Brah in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend?
He’s funny (“Please, Mr Brah was my father. I’m Father Brah,”) he’s wise (“two things is a lot for one brain,”) he offers solemn counsel and looks heart-flutteringly hot while doing it.
And he, too, is kind of a bad boy of the cloth rebel who doesn’t play by the rules, albeit in a very legal and California way.
Both Fleabag and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are not without their faults, some minor and some glaring, and I believe strongly that there’s space for criticism of both. But I do understand that sense of overwhelming connection to someone’s work, of having parts of you that were hidden deep inside suddenly articulated on screen in full colour, and I definitely get that gulping-for-air sadness at something you love being over and done with. So if you’re craving more effervescent bleakness with a bonus worldview-challengingly handsome priest on the side, then Crazy Ex-Girlfriend could just be the next show to cleverly and methodically ruin your life.
I really have, Paula.
(PS you can read more of my writing here or at hungryandfrozen.com.)