When Lena Dunham's Girls appeared seven years ago, it cleared the path for a parade of smart, provocative television shows about smart, provocative young heroines.
The best of the bunch may well be Fleabag, the hilarious, raunchy and unexpectedly touching Amazon series by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the British writer and actress who created the terrific TV adaptation of Killing Eve and was recently asked to punch up the script of the new James Bond movie.
Waller-Bridge knows how to have fun with the flickering currents of female wit, desire, insecurity and anger. The first season of Fleabag charts the confusion of Waller-Bridges' title character, the 20-something owner of a floundering London café who's dealing with the tragic death of her BFF.
Lanky and libidinous — sex is both her torment and her refuge — Fleabag is also startlingly self-dramatizing. She constantly breaks the so-called fourth wall to talk directly to the audience as she enjoys kinky sex, bickers with her success-mad sister Claire (Sian Clifford) or bemoans that her widower father (Bill Paterson) has taken up with her godmother, a two-faced artist played by Oscar-winner Olivia Colman.
Season 2 finds Fleabag's world changing beneath her feet, with her sister's marriage in trouble and her dad about to wed the godmother she can't stand. Searching for peace, she veers off in the strangest direction. She gets the hots for a sexy, foul-mouthed Roman Catholic priest played by Andrew Scott, the wonderful Irish actor perhaps best known by American audiences as Professor Moriarty on Sherlock. This irreverent reverend senses Fleabag's inner distress, and the two develop a relationship that may or may not court mortal sin.
As it riffs on questions of belief, Season 2 pulls off the rare feat of taking a hugely successful show and making it much better — in part by revealing the limitations of the original season. Where the enjoyable first season proved Waller-Bridges' versatility as an actress — her eyes have the animated eloquence of a silent film star's — it sometimes betrayed its origins as a one-woman theatrical show. It was a tad too eager to tickle the audience with its naughtiness, and the other characters felt less lived-in than they should. At times, the whole world seemed like an adjunct to Fleabag's psyche.
But everything is richer and more fluid in this second season. Fleabag's family takes on a new emotional solidity, with even Claire's cartoonishly noxious husband (Brett Gelman) developing some shading. And Waller-Bridge has found her perfect foil in Scott. With his oddball timing and slightly intoxicated affect, his priest does for Fleabag what his Moriarty did for Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes. He knocks her out of her comfort zone.
While all six episodes are good, I want to single out the third as one of the greatest episodes of television I've ever seen. Juggling low comedy and high wit, it moves from a farcical gag about flatulence, to Kristin Scott-Thomas' character's majestic speech about women's aging, to a breathtakingly intimate scene with the priest in which Waller-Bridge takes the convention of a character directly addressing the audience and gives it a spin so original it's thrilling. You grasp what makes him, and their relationship, so special.
Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that the aim of philosophy is to show the fly the way out of the fly bottle that imprisons it. Season 2 finds Fleabag trying to escape the "fly bottle" of her own head — and all its theatrical loneliness and longing. Without ever getting precious or self-helpy, it's about learning to believe in the possibility of human relationships that are genuine, emotionally connected and capable of enduring.
Whether Fleabag reaches such belief, you'll have to decide. For her part, Waller-Bridge has made a decision of her own. Resisting the current imperative to keep shows going season after season, she's already announced that this is the end of Fleabag. Which is just further proof of how great this show is. After all, if there's anything harder than making a good season of television, it's knowing when you've said what you had to say.