Fleabag, the heroine of BBC3’s latest comedy hit, is a mess. She stumbles through life in London, picking fights with everyone from her bank manager to her sister, drinking too much and having a series of loveless sexual encounters with terrible men she knows only by soubriquets such as “Bus Rodent”, “Sobbing Good Looking Man” and “Arsehole Guy”. She’s propelled on her increasingly chaotic journey through life by a combination of grief and fury, mourning the loss of a close friend even as she rages against life’s iniquities.
Sharp-tongued, pain-filled Fleabag is about as far from the TV heroines of previous generations, the perky Mary Tyler Moores with their can-do spirit, as can be imagined. It’s impossible to picture her sitting down for girl’s brunch to dish the dirt Carrie Bradshaw-style or possessing the blithe optimism of Bridget Jones – back in cinemas last week – that life will work out if you cut down on the fags, monitor your gin and tonic intake, and keep searching for Mr Almost Right.
Yet Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s half-hour comedy is also truly and properly funny. It works because of the sense that nothing and no one is off limits, from its leading lady’s appalling sex life to the aching hole at her heart where her best friend Boo used to be. “If it’s rooted in some sort of truth for the character then there’s no such thing as too far,” says Waller-Bridge of her refusal to sand away her heroine’s edges. “If it’s used for shock value then it’s a waste of everyone’s time. It’s easy to dismiss Fleabag’s honesty as simply ‘shocking’ but as the series goes on there’s more revealed about her that makes sense of why she says and does the things she does early on.”
Nor is Fleabag alone in telling its heroine’s story with a dark and often brutal honesty. In the US critics have given rave reviews to One Mississippi, standup Tig Notaro’s bleakly funny comedy series about the year in which she was diagnosed with cancer, her relationship ended and her mother died, and the sharp-edged Better Things, which stars Louie’s Pamela Adlon as a struggling actress and single mother of three. Next month Sky Atlantic will air Divorce, Sharon Horgan’s latest excavation of the human soul, this time starring Sex and the City’s Sarah Jessica Parker as a brittle fortysomething housewife whose marriage is falling painfully apart. The hugely anticipated Insecure in which Issa Rae’s likeable, directionless heroine navigates her way through her late 20s in LA arrives on the same channel later this year.
“This is the most exciting time I can remember for shows depicting the lives of women,” says Variety’s television critic, Maureen Ryan. “There are so many wildly different portrayals. For far too long women have been the objects of TV stories, something to be looked at, talked about, observed, hurt, seduced, murdered etc. Even if a show had a prominent role for a woman or prominent roles for multiple women, their storylines often revolved around what the men in their lives wanted or thought of them. Now we have a wave of shows that are told from the inside of women’s lives in which women aren’t the object, they’re the subject, and it makes all the difference.”
Waller-Bridge agrees. “It seems very dated now for a show not to explore the complexities of their female characters as much as their male ones,” she says. “We’ve had decades’ worth of shows with actresses playing ‘roles’ rather than characters. You could categorise a lot of female parts into the one-dimensional ‘mother, virgin, whore’ bracket but now it seems more on trend, thankfully, to write parts that are individual and complex and un-boxable, which is a great improvement and long overdue.”
We’ve been here before, of course, most notably with Lena Dunham’s Girls, which wallows in heroine Hannah Horvath’s flaws while granting her enough self-knowledge to be aware of how horrible she is to all in her orbit. Similarly Comedy Central’s hit series Broad City allows its two heroines to be complex, rounded individuals, capable of being silly and serious, both good friends and bad. “I think in the US some kind of logjam was broken open by Orange Is the New Black which has such an extensive array of varied female characters of all backgrounds, cultures and races,” says Ryan. “There’s been an explosion of shows in which women are at the centre of the narrative and carrying all kinds of stories forward in all kinds of ways.”
And while these shows are very different in subject matter they’re linked by a refusal to shy away from life’s more awkward moments. In Insecure when Issa wants to attract her crush’s attention she volunteers to rap on stage. The problem? Her chosen subject is best friend Molly and her ‘broken pussy’. It’s a hugely funny scene that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Bridget Jones movie were it not for the rather more x-rated subject matter. “We can definitely get away with more because of the medium,” admits Rae. “Broadcast TV in America has to be clean and family friendly but being on cable allows us to be more free with our themes.”
Similarly in Divorce we watch Parker’s Frances sit through an excruciating dinner party with her boorish husband. As the numb horror flits slowly across her face it’s as though we’re watching the flip side to Sex and the City, the moment when Carrie woke up and realised she might have a closet full of spindly shoes but the price she’s paid is being forced to listen to Big pontificate for the rest of her life. Yet later in the same episode we learn something about Frances that makes us view that scene in an entirely different, less forgiving way.
“These half-hour shows are often more dramatic and meaningful than dramas,” says Ryan. “They concentrate and distil many powerful themes and ideas but the shorter running times mean that they’re punchier and less sprawling. They have to be focused and selective and that makes for better TV.”
They also work because they’re so strongly rooted in character. We care about Fleabag because we slowly come to realise that this is a story about loss and loneliness as much as a woman behaving badly. Similarly Insecure’s heart comes from Molly and Issa’s complicated, believable friendship, which feels firmly rooted in reality, sharp one-liners and all. “It was extremely important to me that the friendship between Issa and Molly was at the heart of the show,” says Rae. “It always irked me that black women are on the sidelines even in female friendly shows plus there’s such a history of black women fighting on TV from reality TV shows in particular and I wanted to say no, here is an honest, realistic portrayal of black female friendship that is true to my own experience of life.”
Insecure doesn’t hesitate to tackle the many different issues black women face, with Issa frequently reduced to venting her frustration with her white work colleagues in a series of bathroom raps. “I didn’t want to bang people over the head saying this is the message of this show but at the same time being black you deal with this sort of stuff every day both in the background or more openly,” Rae says. “Sometimes it affects you and sometimes it’s just another day with this sort of stuff. I liked the idea that the bathroom is where she can be fully honest. She can let out the bravado and aggression and whatever she needs to get out and just be fully honest in a way she can’t be in her real life.”
Fleabag is similarly interested in the gap between how you present yourself to the world and the more bleak reality. “Fleabag’s candour about sex and the more everyday aspects of life are used to distract the audience from what she’s really going through,” Waller-Bridge says. “She’s bold about her experiences but she’s not entirely honest about how they make her feel. Owning your foibles and laughing about them is very empowering but it can also be about self-preservation.”
Ultimately while these shows go to some very dark places we respond positively because it’s a refection of our lives in all their messy, incoherent glory. “It’s important to reflect human behaviours and experiences honestly and bravely but first and foremost we go to TV for entertainment,” says Waller-Bridge. “The reality of women’s lives if told truthfully is undoubtedly going to entertain and if that makes people feel a little less alone then all the better for it.”
Fleabag is available on iPlayer
That Girl (1966-1971)
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The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77)
Groundbreaking in numerous ways, this was a show that celebrated Mary Richards as a single, modern woman.
Murphy Brown (1988-1998)
The story of sharp-tongued, ambitious journalist Murphy Brown, this sitcom was also notable for tackling serious issues from alcoholism to single motherhood.
Sex and the City (1998-2004)
Early seasons of Sex and the City were clear-eyed dissections of the life of Carrie Bradshaw as a single woman in New York.
Brash and refreshingly unapologetic about her body and her enjoyment of sex, Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) redrew TV’s idea of the girl about town.