Why the Amazon Show Fleabag Deserves Your Attention   

I first heard about the Amazon comedy Fleabag from Glen Weldon during NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour.  Weldon made a point to let the listening audience know that Fleabag is so much more than it seems.  He referenced in particular the final episode, which, according to Weldon, proved especially poignant.

What can I say?  Weldon’s praise captured my interest.  Best of all, the first season is only six episodes long, with each episode averaging not quite half an hour.  That’s the sort of fleeting commitment I adore in a show.

I introduced the possibility to my wife.  I sold it to her much the same as Weldon sold it to me, and she also seemed interested in the concept of the show.  Plus, we agreed that if either of us didn’t care for the first episode, we would jettison it from our lives and move on.

We obviously both liked it or I wouldn’t be writing about it so exhaustively and, perhaps by the time you’re done reading, exhaustingly …

The show features a British woman in her early thirties in England.  She is never mentioned by name, but the summary of each show refers to her as “Fleabag.”  Yes, “Fleabag.”  Only as “Fleabag.”  She has a habit of speaking to the camera with brief asides and explanations, letting us in on a particular joke or an integral piece of information.  When we first meet her, she is having sex with a man while offering us a play by play of the activity and even adding in a few predictions of what’s to come.  When the man rolls her over in order to use a different <ahem!> … orifice, “Fleabag” reacts unexpectedly, hilariously, and in such a way that we learn everything we need to know about her.

Or so we think.

The actress playing “Fleabag” is Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and she is absolutely charming, which is astounding because she’s playing a character that should be utterly unlikable.  Her little quips to the camera are typically biting, but it’s her facial expressions that won my wife and me over.  She will deliver the most amazing joke with nothing more than a lift of her eyebrow.  She will let you know exactly what she’s thinking with a quick glare.  Honestly, Waller-Bridge entertained to no end and enriched a character that really wouldn’t work if played by someone else.

Be warned, though, this is a raunchy show.  There are many sexual situations, loads of suggestive dialogue, and ample visits by sex toys.  The language is rough, very rough, with “f-bombs” galore.  However, I wouldn’t describe it as a “dirty” show.  There is virtually no nudity by actual human beings.  If I remember, there was an errant breast coming out of a shirt and a few shots of men’s rear ends.  The most explicit things on camera were often, again, the sex toys (which were not actually in use).

So while this is a comedy, it slowly revealed itself to be something far more, just as Glen Weldon said.  I want to offer caution here, because while I will not explicitly spoil anything past the second episode, you will more than likely be able to connect a few dots.  It’s just that I can’t really address what moved me the most about this show without getting into a few specific details …

You learn early on that Fleabag (I’m dropping the quotes from here on out) is fairly amoral.  She’s not necessarily out to purposefully hurt anyone, but her impulsivity and lack of forethought to both word and deed often upsets someone in her immediate vicinity, whether strangers, friends, or family.  Actually, she doesn’t have any friends.  More on that later …

She has no qualms in taking advantage of someone to meet her own agenda, nor does she mind being taken advantage of so long as that also ultimately suits her base desires.  I wouldn’t call her a master manipulator, but she is a manipulator, to be sure.

Fleabag sleeps around, steals, drinks too much, curses, degrades people, and cuts corners whenever possible.  It’s no wonder she’s friendless.

But she hasn’t always been.

In fact, we learn through flashbacks that Fleabag had a wonderful friend, one whom she loved dearly.  They opened a café together.  Sadly, though, her friend died, leaving Fleabag with the failing café, no other real friends, and a spiraling case of depression that becomes more and more obvious as the series progresses.

Her sister, Claire, humors Fleabag as best she can.  Claire is also a complicated person, though, with issues of her own.  Though very successful, Claire cannot seem to relent control to anyone, cannot navigate a dubious marriage, and cannot achieve enough introspection to glean what she really wants from life.  She has much in common with Fleabag, but she manages normalcy in the outside world far more productively.

Her father has remarried after the death of Fleabag’s mother due to breast cancer.  His new wife is actually the sisters’ godmother, a family friend since their childhood.  The stepmother is the portrait of passive aggressiveness as she makes the sisters feel unwelcome all the while with a smile plastered across her face.  The sisters hate her, she hates them, and the father seems too meek to confront either situation.  In the process, Fleabag appears, though she never gives voice to it, to feel as though she’s lost her father as well as her mother.

The show achieves originality when you slowly begin to realize that Fleabag’s abysmal behavior is absolutely the byproduct of guilt, anger, depression and low self-esteem.  It never crosses over into cliché, it never dives into pop psychology, but it does become very apparent that she only feels of value when someone sexually craves her.  She uses sex as therapy for all of her issues, but never realizes the promiscuous sex is only compounding her problems.

Yeah, pretty deep territory for a comedy.

Furthermore, we can relate to her.  I think we’ve all done something we wish we hadn’t in the hopes of acquiring someone’s approval or favor.  She’s a likable person doing very unlikable things, and I know I personally can say I’ve been there as well.  Haven’t we all in some facet or another?

This character has lost her best friend.  Her sister doesn’t trust her.  Her father will not stand up for her.  Her stepmother detests her.  She’s losing her business.  She can’t pay her bills.  She has every reason in the world not to give a shit about anything.

Which she doesn’t.

Until … she does.

The beauty of that sixth episode is what happens when she does finally care.  How will her family react when she actually tries to engage them meaningfully?  How will she respond when she finally faces the truth of her friend’s death?  What happens when she gazes within and attains a manner of self-realization?

Comedy!

Honestly, Fleabag is hilarious, but it doesn’t shy away from these profoundly important moments.  It never feels heavy even as it’s dealing with incredibly troubling material, and it always prompts an uncomfortable chuckle, an awkward giggle, and an inappropriate laugh at just the wrong time.  It is a serious show wrapped so deeply within a comedy that it’s not until you think about each episode afterwards that you realize its gravitas.

Glen Weldon, you were right.  Fleabag is definitely worth a watch.

P.S.  I know I didn’t discuss her timid boyfriend, whom she pushes away at every opportunity.  I’ve written over a 1,000 words at this point, and frankly, he would require another 1,000, and I won’t be presumptuous enough to believe I deserve that much of your attention.  Plus, it’s late.  And, I’m tired.  Good night.

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About Arrested Development Season 4

My wife and I loved Arrested Development when it aired on Fox.  Sure, it took some getting used to, but we came to adore its weird, quirky stories with such flawed, lovably dysfunctional characters.  From week to week, I’d have a new favorite Bluth, which says a lot about the show’s magic.

When we heard it was coming to Netflix to continue with a fourth season, we were elated.  Unfortunately, I’m enormously cheap and refused to open a Netflix account when we already paid for cable and Amazon Prime.  I guess my love for Arrested Development was a conditional one.

However, we recently picked it up on DVD, and though it took a few episodes to get back in the swing of things, it once again won us over and proved itself a worthy addition.

In fact, I would argue it’s the most ambitious season yet in terms of pure story execution.  If you haven’t seen it, the fourth season basically occurs over a few days.  However, each episode focuses upon one character and their perspective pertaining to the overall story.  At first it’s very confusing, to be sure, but as the episodes unfold, the audience begins to realize what’s happening.  I can’t imagine the editing process for this season, but I’m sure it was a herculean task!  Each character has a subplot, yet they all intertwine with one another.

I wouldn’t say it’s the funniest season, but it’s certainly funny and highly entertaining.  A lot of the jokes were standbys from previous seasons, but still executed creatively.  I especially enjoyed the “meta” commentary throughout.

The final episode took me aback though, because it felt a little anticlimactic and ended abruptly.  However, that could very well be by design.  After all, this news arrived just today.

Neighbors – A Movie Review

There’s no way to avoid the obvious – this movie is hilarious.  Truthfully, I don’t ask much from my comedies, and Neighbors delivered.  The thing just spouted off one joke after another, one visual gag after another, and it kept me laughing throughout.

If you’re not familiar with the plot, a couple sink every penny they have into a new home in a nice, quiet neighborhood in order to give their baby daughter a proper upbringing.  Yeah, the parents have a wild side, and the “grown up” lifestyle is difficult for them, but it isn’t until a frat inexplicably buys the home next to them that they realize just how “old” they really are.  After initially trying to win over the frat guys, they call the cops when the noise doesn’t stop, and from that moment on, it’s war.

Sure, it’s Seth Rogen basically playing the same guy he always plays, but that guy is typically pretty funny.  Rose Byrne absolutely holds her own in the film and is even more funny than Rogen much of the time.  The two guys who really surprised me, though, were Zac Efron and Dave Franco.  They play the frat’s president and vice-president, and they were ridiculously funny.

This is not high-brow stuff, but who cares?  I love to laugh, and this one had me laughing nonstop.  Make sure the kids are in bed, though. You probably know this if you’re familiar with Rogen’s work, but there is major profanity throughout, lots of drug use and references, and plenty of explicit material.

But man, it’s funny.

The Rocker – A Movie Review

Within the first ten minutes, the creators of The Rocker make it readily apparent after Rainn Wilson punctures the top of a van with his drumsticks that you better relax and take this movie for what it is – a nonsensical farce attacking rock band cliché after cliché and offering a few catchy songs in the process.

Rainn Wilson, he of Dwight Schrute fame, plays Robert Fishman, the drummer of a band about to break it big in the early … Eighties?  As you can imagine, they have to dump him in order to get the huge record deal, and so they do.  Cut to Fishman twenty-some years later, still raging about the slight and going nowhere.  As fate would have it, he must move back in with his sister, and she has a socially awkward son who just happens to need a – wait for it – drummer for his band’s gig at the school dance.

Through a series of misadventures, including a YouTube video featuring Wilson’s naked butt, he and his teenage band mates have to hit the road in order to promote an unlikely hit song.

Wilson takes this as his chance to finally live the life of a rocker, but (of course) eventually learns a few life lessons with the help of Christina Applegate – the lead singer’s improbable mom – and has a chance to outdo his original band, the one that dropped him all those years ago.

This is not meant to be anything but a circus, but there actually were a few good laughs amongst all the pratfalls and the young actors playing the band members did a nice enough job of keeping up with Wilson.  There were also cameos galore from all the usual suspects.

Here’s the problem with actors playing eccentric characters on hit shows releasing movies – you can never quite differentiate between their television character and the character they play in the movie.  Oh, sure, once actors move on and years go by, you forget they were ever even on a TV show such as with Tom Hanks, George Clooney, and Clint Eastwood.  However, you also have those such as Michael Richards who will forever be Kramer no matter what he does.  Steve Carell also seems to suffer from this ailment.  No matter what movie I see him in, he’s the same guy to me.  Anyway, Rainn Wilson does an adequate job of taking a role that allows him to play to his strengths, but the character is also quirky enough that you don’t see a carbon copy of Dwight Schrute.  Perhaps a character who could be a distant relative of Dwight Schrute, but not Dwight himself.

So would I recommend The Rocker?  If you’ve got nothing else to watch or have a burning desire to see more of Wilson’s naked body than anyone should, you could watch worse movies.  And despite myself, some of the songs the fictional band performed were actually catchy.

Tropic Thunder – A Movie Review

There’s no doubt in my mind that Tom Cruise made this movie.  I’m no Cruise apologist, but he was absolutely hilarious and nearly unrecognizable as a fat, balding, foul-mouthed movie executive.

With that being said, Tropic Thunder was really very funny.  I’m not sure it’s as good as many make it out to be, but its star-power alone (most of whom brazenly goof on themselves) guarantees entertainment. 

If you’re not familiar with the plot, Ben Stiller plays a Tom Cruise-ish action star hoping to revive his career in a movie based upon a book called Tropic Thunder, written by Nick Nolte’s character, a solider who supposedly helped rescue his POW friends.  Robert Downey, Jr., plays an Oscar-winning Australian who undergoes surgery in order to play a black solider.  Jack Black plays a Chris Farley (or Jack Black) style of actor who’s made his living on fart jokes.  Matthew McConaughey plays Stiller’s agent, and he, like Cruise, gives an unusual and therefore appreciated performance.  Finally, Steve Coogan plays the director of this movie-within-a-movie.

With all the self-obsessed actors <ahem!> acting up, Nolte’s character suggests Coogan drops them into the jungle for real in order to get honest emotions.  Before long, things go awry and Stiller’s character is taken prisoner by a drug cartel.  The other actors now must decide if they head for home or launch a daring rescue operation, just like the movie they were previously making.

While I love Ben Stiller, every character he plays is essentially the same.  Jack Black, too, suffers largely from this dilemma.  Downey, Jr., as a black man got old after a while, but I believe this was actually done on purpose focusing upon method actors’ inability to reclaim their own persona.  Nick Nolte was funny, but I’m fairly certain it wasn’t on purpose.  I was glad to see McConaughey playing a role that didn’t involve a romantic comedy, and Steve Coogan’s performance, while short, was typically wonderful.  As I said, though, the surprising scene-stealer was far and way Tom Cruise.

Tropic Thunder was funny, entertaining, and fast-paced, but it wasn’t horribly original and the acting, other than Cruise and Downey, Jr., wasn’t anything you haven’t seen before from the movie’s stars.

Baby Momma – A Movie Review

Though Baby Momma was terribly clichéd and predictable, it’s futile to resist the brilliant chemistry of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.  But while the movie had some genuinely funny moments, Tina and Amy’s characters were undeniably stereotypical and rather bland for two such gifted comedians.  Fey sets the bar so high on a weekly basis with 30 Rock, anything less can’t help but disappoint. 

I was, however, pleasantly surprised by talented supporting actors appearing in the film such as Greg Kinnear, Steve Martin, and Sigourney Weaver.  Lots of SNL players showed up as well, but that’s probably to be expected.

All in all, the movie wasn’t terrible, but I expected much more originality from Poehler and Fey and didn’t see anything in Baby Momma that I haven’t seen before.