Tremendous creator, writer, actor, comedienne and zeitgeist inhabitor, Phoebe Waller-Bridge has become one of the most important voices in the aftermath of the #MeToo and #TimesUp explosion. Her shows, “Fleabag” and “Killing Eve”, seem to be the tip of the iceberg of what she is capable of delivering to us. Further, she is a major player in what has always been considered a patriarchal franchises, first as an actor voicing a pro-Union revolutionary droid in “Solo: A Star Wars Story”, and, in a much more game-changing role, as a script-doctor for the currently filming “007” offering.
So, given that she is in possession of a supreme talent, as well as utterly unafraid to take on the mantle of Hollywood game-changer, what do her most recent contributions do for the everyday viewer who are looking for something worthwhile to watch/binge? Of course, if you read my review of the first season of “Killing Eve”, then you already know I think her voice (and her ear for human dialogue in the most unrealistic circumstances) is exceptional. But what truly sets her apart is her ability to create rich, detailed, and nuanced characters who blossom most when in the company of others. And unlike most comedy writers, who spend a large part of their time finding the joke within a situation, Waller-Bridge let’s the emotional baggage at the center of the relationship do the heavy lifting. It’s a subtle distinction, but really effective.
Fleabag (Seasons 1 & 2)
Created by Pheobe Waller-Bridge
Doing it first and doing it better, the maiden season of “Fleabag” feels like the blueprint Ricky Gervais copied for the terrific “After Life”. But whereas Gervais’ character wears his proximity to death on his sleeve, Waller-Bridge keeps it well hidden…yet always mere layers of skin away. Everything, every move, every laugh, every word, every break from the norm, may be motivated by grief, but feels like a call to life. It’s touching, and hilarious, and extremely of and about women. In fact, contrasting “Fleabag” to “After Life” is about as perfect a depiction of how women and men deal with the real life issues that emerge from grief in extremely differing ways as we’re bound to see.
But make no mistake, this is a unique and singular piece of work. Yes, at its core it’s another streaming sitcom, but tht’s like saying “Maizel” is just another streaming sitcom. Both seasons of “Fleabag” are PACKED with reasons to laugh with, laugh at and laugh near both our main character and those around her. For this reason, the bits that cry for sympathy from the viewer actually engender empathy. In other words, make sure you have a tissue box near by.
What makes this all the more impressive is that not only does Waller-Bridge write these terrific six half-hour sessions each season, she also maneuvers through the shark-infested waters of performing one’s own script with subtlety, humanity, and a real presence – firmly in the now of each moment.
But without the interplay between Waller-Bridge and Sian Clifford, who plays her angst-on-her-sleeve sister, the show would lose quite a bit of its oomph. Clifford is more than up to the task. In fact I sometimes found myself longing for a show that was based on HER character’s life! Then there’s the brilliant Olivia Colman. Giving the necessary third dimension to a stock sitcom character, she connives, blusters, and panders with the best of them. It’s a supporting character Award-worthy performance. And playing the character whose presence is impossible to ignore, Jenny Rainsford is sweet, funny, and plays a best friend about as well as we’ve seen on TV. On the decidedly male side of the spectrum are Bill Paterson and Brett Gelman. Again, the flat sitcom characters that we’re used to are turned in to something much deeper in the hands of these actors. Finally, I’m not a very big fan of Andrew Scott. I’ve never seen him act in a manner remotely subtle enough to be called human. This can work exceedingly well on stage. But on screen, it’s brutal. And as the main guy in season two, he’s a mixed bag. I think he’s written just well enough to overcome his facial ticks. Nonetheless, I found myself wishing someone else had played the role. Regardless of my misgivings about him, this is an almost universally well performed series.
Don’t miss this rich, hilarious, and emotionally filled show. It’s a quick watch…too quick, in fact.
Killing Eve (Season 2)
Created by Pheobe Waller-Bridge
Man, I sure wish I could be as positive about the second season of “Killing Eve” as I am about the sophomore effort of “Fleabag”. First, I need to point out that Waller-Bridge was not the show runner for season two. But, as she created it, and still has an Exec Producer credit, she needs to take some of the blame. Almost everything I loved about the first season is either missing from the second, or utilized WAY too strongly. The first season introduced so many original ideas for a TV show – from the music choices, to the play on what makes an antagonist an antaganist, to a unique look and editing style, two of the best written characters of the season in Eve, Villanelle (with CIA section head, Carolyn Martens, a close third), and, of utmost import, the brilliant decision to keep the two of them generally at bay – all of which made it appointment viewing.
Unfortunately, most of those things are missing from season two. Even the music, which is as varied as in season one, is not nearly as in your face, which was part of the fun. In fact, I had to listen to the first season soundtrack as soon as the final episode had ended – no such urge this season. And, much worse, the characters have veered in to cartoon land. The stakes seem so much lower, even if they are actually higher. Mostly this comes down to a terrible plot/arc decision by show runner, Emerald Fennell. It’s the POTENTIAL that made sparks fly in this show. Now it’s merely a fun ride, instead of the exciting and clandestine romance it was. I can’t for the life of me imagine what she was thinking. Finally, I must note the severe lack of screen time for Fiona Shaw and Kim Bodnia.
Of course, it is quite possible that the actors simply cannot handle this change…or, rather, that better direction might have upped the ante some. Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer certainly try their hardest. Comer, especially, almost makes it worth the effort to watch with her scenework. Her representation of psychopathic boredom is brilliant. But Oh seems a little lost as an actor in season two…like she’s not sure which way to go…which is understandable given that the story has left her relationship to everything, other than plot points, in the dust. Actually, if I’m being honest, the men come out more defined this season, especially Owen McDonnell. His confusion, mistrust, loneliness and haplessness are played with total honesty…especially when compared to the semi-foppishness of his Niko in season one. The addition of Edward Bluemel brings some much needed kinetic energy to the proceedings. But with much less screen time for Sean Delaney (why, oh why?!!!), Kim Bodnia (why, oh why?!!!), and Fiona Shaw (WTF?!!!) it’s a bit empty.
So, perhaps I’m being overly harsh, but only because this season had so much to live up to…AND because “Fleabag” had almost no sophomore slump (granted, she did have three years to develop it). But, in essence, “Killing Eve” feels less like a new, excitingly original take on an old show genre, and more like just another irreverent spy show. Ah, well. There’s always next season.