Television Comedy Roundup: “Fleabag” on Amazon and HBO’s “High Maintenance”.
The protagonist of the new Amazon original sitcom “Fleabag” is something else. Embodied by actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the show’s nominal character — who is given no name by the script, so we’ll call her Fleabag strictly for the purposes of this review — is rude, perverse, egocentric and even a self-proclaimed “bad feminist”. She’s also a by-now familiar T.V. archetype: like “Girls” and Netflix’s “Love,” “Fleabag” is about a 30-something urban underachiever whose priorities are (roughly in this order) sex, self-satisfaction, not being broke, a vaguely defined idea of success and oh, did I mention sex?
“Fleabag” has loads of scatology on the mind, and while it’s ultimately a fixation we’ve seen more than a couple times before, what this BBC import brings to the table is its dark and definitively British wit, as well as some welcome undercurrents of tragedy underneath all the bad behavior and free-floating smut. I can’t say that the show’s first few episodes struck me as being especially funny, but “Fleabag” is grimly compelling all the same, and it accrues an unexpected emotional power in its final three installments that is astonishing. In a way, the show works even better as a ruminative drama about a self-destructive woman than it does as a quote-unquote cringe comedy, so much so that I imagine some viewers will question what show they’re actually watching about halfway through the season.
Obvious virtues aside, “Fleabag” takes some getting used to. There’s an anal sex joke before the two minute mark and the main character’s habit of breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the viewer, often while she’s engaged with a conversation with someone else in the scene, is jarring at first. Little by little, though, “Fleabag” starts to develop its own bittersweet rhythms. It’s a show that’s not afraid to go for the gut-punch, and its refusal to cave in to mawkishness is refreshing.
You certainly can’t say the same thing about something like Judd Apatow’s “Trainwreck,” another tonally similar portrait of a promiscuous city girl struggling to combat her own selfishness and accept the pleasures of maturity. Since Mr. Apatow is a big ol’ softie at heart, “Trainwreck” ultimately negates its character’s transgressions with a saccharine climax that insists what good, decent people its characters are after all. Thankfully, “Fleabag” doesn’t go this route. This is a filthy, mostly unsentimental show whose occasional detours into kitchen sink realism are all the more effective for feeling unforced. The first few episodes are wonky, hit-or-miss affairs, but the show’s final three episodes contain a swelling of unexpected pathos that would have been easy to miss amidst all the passive-aggressive British politesse and dildo jokes.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge introduces us to Fleabag as she awaits the arrival of a 2a.m. hook-up. Said hookup turns out to be an earnest, hunky dude in a leather jacket with an “exceptionally large penis,” a fact Fleabag clues us into more than once. After this smack-in-the-pants teaser, “Fleabag” spends some time with its main screw-up as she navigates her day-to-day grind in foggy Londontown. We meet her cold, closed-off sister, whose successful lifestyle stands in stark contrast to Fleabag’s own boozy, quick-decision existence, even if her husband (alt comic Brett Gelman, the Picasso of Awkward) is a world-class creep. We later see Fleabag flirt with a charmless stranger she meets on the bus (his idea of a joke is telling a woman he’s just met that he’s going to treat her like a “nasty little bitch” immediately after he’s taken down her phone number).
We also learn that Fleabag’s onetime dream was to own a guinea-pig-themed café with her best friend Boo: certainly a pie in the sky idea if ever there was one. There are also teasing flashbacks to Fleabag’s life with her too-kind and understanding now-ex-boyfriend Harry. Harry is almost impossibly decent — which is a quality that stands out in a show like this — and really his only crime is investing in someone who casually abuses him on an almost daily basis. It’s possible that later seasons will reveal that the rupture between Fleabag and Harry was not entirely of Fleabag’s doing and that Harry has some skeletons in the closet as well, but as of now, the painfully one-sided dynamic of their relationship is the most emotionally piercing thing on the show.
The comparisons to Lena Dunham are inevitable, I suppose. Like “Girls,” “Fleabag” is a show that is ruthless and unsparing in its depictions of awkward, and in some cases even awful, sex. The show’s characters are similarly flippant and dismissive of each other: no one really listens, and everyone’s mostly just waiting for their turn to speak. But the show that “Fleabag” actually reminded me more of was Tig Notaro’s recent, wonderful Amazon comedy-drama “One Mississippi”. Of course on paper, the gentle, understated tone of Tig’s show couldn’t be more different than the rough bawdiness of “Fleabag”. It is important to note, however, that both shows use six carefully written and precise episodes to examine a crisis in one woman’s life through a very specific lens. In “One Mississippi,” it’s the death of the main character’s mother. In “Fleabag,” it is a tragedy I will refrain from naming, for now, as I believe it’s best for interested viewers to go into this show cold and see how expertly Waller-Bridge and the writers choose to utilize it as a narrative device. A scene where Fleabag shows up at her father’s house in a bout of drunken self-pity is scathing in what it reveals about the depth of pain in it’s main character’s existence, and ditto for the bruising fifth episode, in which a trip to Fleabag’s old family home sees long-buried ancestral resentments bubbling to the surface.
“Fleabag” also manages to capture the loneliness of London in a way I’ve never really seen in a T.V. show before. Having been to London recently, I was struck by the sort of collective exhaustion that seems to exist among some of its inhabitants. Some people start drinking at 5pm and don’t stop until the sun comes up. That desolate sense of drunken big-city frustration permeates “Fleabag”, particularly in moving transitional scenes like the one in which Fleabag herself helps a sloppily soused young woman hail a cab, only to proposition her to come home with her mere seconds later. In scenes like this — and throughout the show, really — Ms. Waller-Bridge gives a fearless master class in comedic self-annihilation. I must admit, the act of continually breaking the fourth wall did take some getting used to, but I implore viewers to study Waller-Bridge’s facial reactions in these moments. She has the grace and instincts of a silent movie star, and despite how you feel about the very rough, uncouth vision of the show itself, there’s no denying that its lead actress is a star in the making. I doubt this is the last we’ll be seeing of her. The same is true of “Fleabag” itself, come to think of it.
“High Maintenance” is a less uncouth, more relaxed comedy that shows potential in its pilot episode, but also traffics in some well-tread waters. Let’s just say that if I never watch another show about lackadaisical creative types bumming their way through gentrified Brooklyn again, I think I’ll still be able to die a happy man. “High Maintenance” exists in the same cloistered New York milieu as “Girls,” “Master of None,” “Broad City” and “Bored to Death,” where slacker characters somehow inhabit multi-million dollar lofts and smoke copious amounts of ganja whilst noodling on the calcified existential issues of the day.
Some of these shows are charming, in their way, like Jonathan Ames’ loopy and affectionate “Bored to Death,” which recast mousy Jason Schwartzman as a perpetually blitzed Phillip Marlowe. Other shows, like “Girls,” make me wonder why someone as clearly intelligent as Lena Dunham would think to to set a show in New York without a person of color anywhere in eyesight (and sorry, Donald Glover’s token casting doesn’t count). Regardless, from its opening episode, it’s clear that “High Maintenance” belongs to this tradition of Brooklyn slacker coms and while I found the first episode to be somewhat underwhelming, the show is not without its modest charms.
“High Maintenance” began as a sort of online anthology — or, to use the term dreaded by many, webseries — about a laconic, bearded hipster who travels through the tri-state borough by bicycle, dispensing high-grade weed to assorted oddball customers. The format is actually quite clever: each episode stands alone as its own kind of unique, televised short story, examining an individual life through a stoney lens with our sleepy-eyed, pot-peddling main dude acting as the thinnest kind of connective tissue. Here, finally, is a stoner comedy Robert Altman would approve of.
While I found the insider Brooklyn humor of “High Maintenance’s” first half-hour to be ultimately wearing, the show is peppered with disarming moments of real drama that hint at a more deep and layered show that could blossom in the episodes to come. That said, the show works just fine as a foggy-minded, unpretentious comic detour into New York’s strange and hidden corners, and I suspect plenty of HBO viewers will begin happily packing their bongloads to the tune of its opening title theme. Imagine if Joe Swanberg remade Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours” in the spirit of the Lou Adler/Cheech and Chong movies, and you have a pretty solid idea of what “High Maintenance” has to offer.
Like its online incarnation, each episode of HBO’s version of “High Maintenance” is divided into two bifurcated halves. The pilot’s first chapter ends up being funnier than its second, but less dramatically involving. In the early goings, the Dude (played by series co-creator Ben Sinclair) is buzzed to the walk-up of a muscled-up, super-aggro Vin Diesel wannabe who’s currently having an awful fight with his girlfriend. The bad vibes of their heated verbal dispute carry over into The Dude’s laid-back weed-for-cash transaction, which is undercut by moments of his customer intimidating him and questioning his masculinity. The scene ends in a cripplingly awkward fashion, but not before a cheeky reveal that calls into question the reality of everything we’ve just seen. On one hand, it could be viewed as a cheap “gotcha” moment; on the other hand, it’s a sly, smart reveal that hints at the kind of subterranean emotional depths that “High Maintenance” could get into exploring in its later episodes.
Those hidden ripples of anxiety come to the fore in the pilot’s second half, which is a fascinating mini-play about co-dependence and emotional addiction that’s ultimately too painfully real to be funny. We follow a 30-something gay man whose best friendship with a cloying, horrible woman named Crystal is beginning to affect his social life. We learn that the character has been sneaking out to AA meetings just so he can vent his feelings about his so-called ‘best friend’ to a room full of strangers (the joke is that the characters in the support group think that the main character is referring to methamphetamine when he talks about the ‘awfulness of Crystal’) and even later, he shows up at her house in an actual meth-fueled rage that culminates in some much-needed emotional catharsis. Our bike-peddling Dude is barely in this one, but since he’s technically the weed supplier of our conflicted homosexual hero, the story feels — if just barely — like part of a larger whole. The mood shift is noticeable, but I also suspect it’s done on purpose.
The show is well shot and fitfully funny and my only really big complaint with it right now is lack of cohesion, which could very well change as the episodes move on. The first two chapters hardly feel like they should be paired together, though there are some beguiling passages where the stories overlap. In spite of its slack moments and tonal incongruity, “High Maintenance” still goes down easy, and will make pleasurable, undemanding viewer for hip audiences who are too baked to go out on a Friday night. Whether or not it will go down as one of the great HBO comedies remains to be seen, but I’m sure that with a good sativa at the ready, it’s a smooth enough blend.
Grades: “Fleabag,” B+. “High Maintenance,” B-.