As a storytelling device in film and television, breaking the fourth wall can be very tricky. On the one hand, it becomes tiresome when it’s overused, shattering the illusion that what you’re watching isn’t real life. Yet, having characters showcase their thoughts out loud can be an effective and even clever way to humanize them, such as in “Parks and Recreation,” “Malcolm in the Middle,” “The Office” and “House of Cards.” Fortunately for Amazon Video’s newest import “Fleabag,” the main character’s constant acknowledgment of the audience is not only inviting, but also quite refreshing.
Joining the ranks of other brilliant, nuanced Amazon comedies like “Catastrophe” and “Transparent,” “Fleabag” is a deeply layered character study that’s as hysterical as it is devastating. It’s the type of show where you’ll be crying from laughter and then, out of nowhere, a scene will hit you with an emotional gut punch and a new set of tears will begin flowing from your eyeballs.
Of course, this isn’t to say that “Fleabag” is tonally inconsistent; in fact, all six episodes immaculately balance poignant, thought-provoking moments with darkly funny ones. Adapted from the award-winning 2013 play, “Fleabag” is the story of an unnamed woman (Phoebe Waller-Bridge, “Broadchurch”) and her daily escapades as she deals with rocky romances, her troubled relationship with her family, her job at a dingy café and the death of her best friend, all told through the woman’s perspective — her name is never uttered on the show, but it’s credited as Fleabag.
At the center of it all is English actress Waller-Bridge, who is the show’s creator, writer and titular star. Her performance on-screen and off drives the creative engine that fuels the guffaw-inducing one-liners and surprisingly honest exposition of “Fleabag,” which she does through gazing and talking at the camera. She can’t help herself, bluntly telling us about her uptight sister Claire, (Sian Clifford, “Midsomer Murders”), her reticent father (Bill Paterson, “The Killing Fields”), her awful godmother (Olivia Colman, “Tyrannosaur”) and her extremely handsome hookup, whom she simply refers to as “Arsehole Guy” (Ben Aldridge, “Toast”).
And while the comedic scope of “Fleabag” never seems to waver, there’s also a subtle melancholy underlying each major scene, especially during flashbacks that pop up without warning. Even in the quieter, more profound parts of the show, like in one scene from episode four where Waller-Bridge’s character barely speaks, “Fleabag” makes some compelling points about the harsh realities of loneliness, isolation and grief. The sadder moments are hard to swallow, but they don’t stagnate “Fleabag” ’s comic rhythm, nor do they bludgeon the audience with their dramatic undertones.
“Fleabag” also stands out among other television shows for its depiction and treatment of sex. The online premise of the show defines the main character as “sexually promiscuous,” which in most mediums is a generally stigmatized characterization for a woman to have. However, in “Fleabag,” Waller-Bridge’s titular protagonist is portrayed more as a sexual being than as a sexual object.
Instead of resorting to the spectacle of gratuitous, graphic and nudity-heavy sex scenes — I’m looking at you, “Orange is the New Black” — the main character’s sexual forays are much more real and frank than you’d expect. Each of her sexual experiences with Arsehole Guy, ex-boyfriend Harry (Hugh Skinner, “Les Misérables”) and a buck-toothed bus passenger (Jamie Demetriou, “Rovers”) are awkward, bizarre and really uncomfortable, but they help ground the show. In terms of sex, “Fleabag” also highlights body image issues and other sexual insecurities with a sensitive and sharp eye.
It’s a shame the first season of “Fleabag” is only a slim six episodes, but its brevity might also be its saving grace. The show is masterful in its succinctness, each episode getting straight to the point about who exactly this main character is, her quirks and faults and how they affect her romantic and familial relationships. It also features what is quite possibly the shortest, most minimalistic title sequence in TV history. But for all its great qualities, “Fleabag” ’s breaking of the fourth wall gives the show a distinctive edge, pulling us into Waller-Bridge’s imperfect and wholly entertaining world without ever feeling artificial or forced.