The Gross-Out-Comedy-That-Will-Make-You-Cry Queen
The bawdy, wry, and touching comedy of Fleabag and Crashing creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge is like nothing we've seen before.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge pukes right into a pot of food simmering on the stove in the UK comedy series Crashing, a gross-out gag with the grace and timing of a dance number. Her character, Lulu, is wrecked from a night of heavy drinking, and has been commiserating with her childhood friend, Anthony (Damien Molony), in the kitchen of the restaurant in which he works. When he’s called away, she leans over for a whiff of what he’s made, and her appreciation shifts so quickly into hungover heaving that she isn’t able to move away in time — she’s as startled as we are to find herself suddenly disgorging the remains of last night’s liquid dinner.
Panicking over destroying the fruits of Anthony’s labor, she dumps whatever other ingredients she can find on top of the mess, gives it all a stir, and then watches, cringing with the entirety of her form, as Anthony obliviously doles out a serving of the results to his appreciative fiancée Kate (Louise Ford). The couple proceeds to have a serious conversation about the future of their relationship, including whether Lulu is coming between them, as they sit on either side of a plate of her tarted-up vomit.
It’s the sort of incident that the title character Waller-Bridge plays in another series, Fleabag, would find delightful. Fleabag (which is how she’s listed in the credits, though no one refers to her by name onscreen), for example, is obsessed with the time her “uptight and beautiful and probably anorexic” sister Claire (Sian Clifford) got sloshed and took a dump where she wasn’t meant to. “When are you going to stop bringing that up?” Claire wails. “I have two degrees, a husband, and a Burberry coat.” “You shat in a sink,” Fleabag rapturously retorts. “Nothing is ever going to be better.” That Claire once opted for the wrong porcelain throne is, for Fleabag, a moment of rule-defying rawness that can never be buttoned away inside designer outerwear, no matter how intent her sibling is on pretending she’s now above bodily functions.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge is a 31-year-old Brit who, courtesy of the magic of streaming, arrived in the US with not one but two new television series this fall, both set in London and adapted from her plays, each consisting of a compact six-episode season she wrote and stars in. Crashing, the lighter, looser, and more traditional of the two, is an ensemble piece about twentysomethings in a communal living situation that follows the contours of a sitcom while harboring an anarchic streak. It premiered on Channel 4 in the UK in January before slipping quietly onto Netflix here at the start of September. Fleabag, an Amazon-BBC co-production that debuted a few weeks later, is a darker, less easily described dollop of brilliance that follows its protagonist through dating, familial, and financial misadventures while struggling with grief over the death of her best friend.
They’re both funny, foul-mouthed, and sexually frank, vaulting Waller-Bridge into the treasured, slowly expanding, still predominantly white ranks of dramedy’s unladylike ladies — its Schumers, Dunhams, and Soloway-Hahns, its Raes and Blooms, and its Wiigs, whose Bridesmaids Waller-Bridge has cited as a milestone and to whom she's given a nod with the whole sink-shitting episode.
Waller-Bridge’s saltiness includes plenty of gags about and scenes of sex, but it’s as part of a larger interest in intimate awkwardness — she’s a more general connoisseur of the animal indignities of the human body, the way its fleshy unpredictability is always there, often in defiance of our attempts at respectability and reserve. Her sense of humor wavers between being briskly adult and gigglingly juvenile. Fleabag, for instance, begins with a bout of impulsive anal between its main character and a gentleman caller, the punchline of which has Fleabag musing not on her own gameness in bed but on whether she has an unusually expansive asshole.
The bravado of Waller-Bridge's heroines — with their dirty-joking, random hookup-having, earthy unfetteredness — has little bearing on how comfortable they are with communicating how they feel otherwise. It’s not that the sex they have in any way impedes their ability to connect; it’s that physical intimacy and emotional intimacy are two different and not always overlapping things, and one has come more easily to these women than the other.
Take Lulu, whose ukelele-strumming, manic pixie dream girl–worthy arrival into London at the start of Crashing is interrupted by a fellow traveler asking her to please stop. She’s arranged a surprise visit with the intentions of breaking up Anthony’s relationship so she can be with him instead. The question, throughout the series, is whether she’ll ever actually bring herself to confess that she loves him.
Lulu and Anthony have a squirmy sexual tension that falls somewhere between pigtail-pulling and a fight scene that turns into kissing, full of shared history and familiarity muddled with flirtation and deep fondness. But every time Lulu comes close to admitting how she feels, she immediately claims she’s kidding. It’s a compulsion to dodge the issue that makes their scenes together excruciating to watch, both characters veering into vulnerability and then disavowing it. “Say one thing sincerely, I dare you,” Lulu laughs in the midst of some particularly loaded banter, but it’s more painful than it is funny. By the end of the first episode, she’s sure-whatevered her way into the almost-but-not-at-all-right situation of living alongside Anthony and Kate, unintentionally getting them to open up to each other more about their own feelings.
It’s not that Lulu’s shy — not about sex, anyway, whether she’s propositioning another housemate while on the toilet peeing or knocking on Anthony and Kate’s door in the night to borrow condoms. Compared with the capable, micromanaging, uptight Kate, Lulu looks like an overall model of slovenly liberty, turning up to the office in her pajamas because she’s hungover and was late to realizing it was Monday.
But Lulu’s boldness is a half-measure — she might have been introduced looking like an impulsive romantic lead, but she never makes it to the equivalent of the big running-through-the-airport gesture, flinching, chickening out, then lingering, hoping the rapport she has with Anthony will turn into something more without her having to risk rejection. By the time she trumpets, with endearing hypocrisy, "Life is a buffet, Anthony, I taught you that," the sense of abandon she wears so proudly has been revealed as highly selective. Her future seems less dependent on whether she gets together with Anthony and more on whether she’ll be able to open up enough to someone to sustain any relationship at all.
Fleabag could be Lulu a few years down the line, having racked up some experience, some savvy, and some loss. Where Lulu has Anthony as her imperfect partner in crime, Fleabag, who’s still dealing with the death of her bestie Boo (Jenny Rainsford), makes do with the audience, offering winking asides and exchanging “see what I mean?” glances with the camera, as if her life were one amusing, occasionally salacious anecdote she’s sharing with us in real time. It doesn’t take long for the habit to seem terribly lonely, as every other relationship in Fleabag’s life is revealed to be lacking in a deeper connection.
There’s Claire, whose attempts at physical affection are so rare that Fleabag ends up smacking her in the face when she goes in for an unexpected hug. There’s Fleabag’s on and off boyfriend, Harry (Hugh Skinner), whose supportive solicitousness chafes at her like a scratchy sweater. And there’s her father (Bill Paterson), who pulled away from his daughters after the death of their mother from breast cancer, and who channels his concern into the physical: “You’re both looking very healthy,” he tells them, scurrying away before anything more serious can be discussed.
Fleabag and her father actually have that focus on the corporeal in common, though for Fleabag it tends more toward the carnal as a shortcut to closeness she can’t find otherwise. “I'm not obsessed with sex, I just can't stop thinking about it,” she says to the camera. “The performance of it. The awkwardness of it. The drama of it. The moment you realize someone wants your body. Not so much the feeling of it.”
She chews out a date (“What the fuck is your problem?”) for not wanting to go home with her after a desultory drink, she inadvertently flashes the bank manager (Hugh Dennis) from whom she’s trying to get a loan for the failing café she and Boo founded together, and she flirts with a dog, as if her signals are so crossed by grief that everything is transformed into the erotic, no matter how inappropriate. Every flashback of Boo that flickers to the surface is filled with the kind of easy affection Fleabag has lost — it’s no wonder she pokes at the awkward spots in her remaining relationships like a bruise, a little pain preferable to the pretense that everything’s fine.
If Crashing is a romantic comedy that clatters apart as it goes along, Fleabag is an even more cunning repurposing of a familiar female-centric format. It’s an exploration of mourning dressed up as a gal-about-town show, an apocalyptic Sex in the City in which Charlotte, Miranda, and Samantha are dead and Carrie has been left alone to wonder where all the good men are while insisting she’s totally not crying. It’s a bawdy romp in which the bawdiness gathers poignancy and bitterness as it goes along — the absurdity of human bodies versus the susceptibility of human hearts, and the confounding space between the two that Waller-Bridge explores so deftly.
It’s not that far a hop from Lulu puking in that pot to the booze-fueled act that Fleabag circles around for several episodes before revealing — a more calculated bit of sabotage that has its title character wallowing in guilt as well as grief. But the consequences for that action are so much worse in a way that has everything to do with our bodies being such unpredictable collections of flesh — Fleabag’s darkest joke of all. If this is how far Waller-Bridge has come in just one year, we should all brace ourselves for the next one.