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Beneath the tawdry surface, Fleabag has surprising depth

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in her hit BBC series Fleabag. She plays the troubled, hopelessly romantic title character

The hit BBC series is modern, heart-rending and memorable

At the start of the first series of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, the eponymous protagonist and her café-owing partner, Boo, sing: “We’re oh so happy to be a modern woman.” It’s a flashback. As it turns out, Boo is dead, a suicide, and Fleabag, played by Waller-Bridge, must try to be a “modern woman” on her own. Does she succeed?

In keeping with today’s anything-goes hook-up culture, she does, and very well: she jumps into bed with various men, including one she hardly knows, curses with a vulgarity that would make a sailor blush, and seems to live only for the next sexual fling. With Boo gone (the suicide, incidentally, motivated by her boyfriend’s infidelity with, unknown to her, our heroine), Fleabag struggles to keep her café afloat and maintain an uneasy peace with her obnoxious sister, mendacious brother-in-law, widowed father and reptilian “Godmother”. The “Godmother” is an artist who lives with her father and displays the fruits of her talent at periodic “Sexhibitions”, a title that says all you need to know about her chief subject. Fleabag doesn’t appear to think much of her art, a remarkable judgment from someone who once sent lewd selfies to a boyfriend to get his attention.

The show is by turns witty, crass, intelligent and funny, with the wit fuelled amply by Fleabag’s periodic facial and verbal asides, courtesy of Waller-Bridge’s perfect sense of timing. However, beyond rendering decadence hilarious, one might justifiably ask what the point is. For the first three episodes, I felt Fleabag’s chief purpose was rooted in making nihilism comic. But satisfying as the proverb “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” may be for much of the world, it remains a motto for death, and anyone who tries to find it truly comic is kidding himself.

That said, episode four, the funniest of that first season – set at the “Mindful of God Farm”, a campy spiritual retreat centre – changed my mind. It reveals something about Fleabag that viewers may have suspected but doubted amid the chaos.

What happens? She and her sister Christine go to the retreat and at the door exchange their thoughts. “We’re going to get raped here,” Christine says. “Every cloud has a …” Fleabag replies. (Fleabag’s comedy can be very dark.)

Once inside, they find more or less what you’d expect: ethereal, soft-spoken guides who encourage those attending to find themselves. Asked why she’s there, Fleabag says: “I want to shut the noise out, reconnect with my inner thoughts on the road to being one with myself.” Perfect.

But the wit gives way to pathos quickly. Earlier in the season, Fleabag tried to get a loan to save her floundering café and had something of a run-in with the loan officer. It turns out he’s at the retreat as well, on the male side, trying to overcome his rage at women. When the two meet, he’s more sympathetic than he seemed at their last encounter. What does he want in life? He answers to be back home, hug his wife, protect his children, and apologise to everyone. What does she want? “All I want to do is cry all the time.”

That blunt admission becomes even more disturbing in season two, when Fleabag falls for a Catholic priest (Andrew Scott). She would like to do with him what she’s done with other men, but there’s more than carnality to the attraction. He assures her they can only be friends, but she keeps coming back. In one tête-à-tête, she tells him she’s an atheist, and immediately a picture falls off the wall. “I love it when He does that,” says the priest.

In their episode four meeting, he directs her to the “box” for confession, prompting her gently to open her heart, which she does: “I just think I want someone to tell me how to live my life, Father,” she says, “because so far I think I’ve been getting it wrong … and even though I don’t believe your b——-, and I know that scientifically nothing I do makes any difference in the end anyway, I’m still scared. Why am I still scared?”

Sadly, the confessional ends disastrously with the priest’s sympathy collapsing in his own desires for her, but as he embraces her, a picture falls off the wall again, which this time he clearly laments. Troubling as the moment is, Fleabag’s cry for genuine love is the essence of the scene.

Waller-Bridge has described Fleabag as hopelessly romantic, and she’s right. Yet even if she doesn’t quite attain Keats’s romanticism, beauty and truth will help her only if they come from Love Himself. Fleabag probably won’t script it that way, but the need for something greater than what the world can give lies beneath its often tawdry surfaces with a heart-rending clarity that makes it, modern as it is, memorable watching.

Dr Carl C Curtis III is a contributing editor at The Christian Review and professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia

Fleabag is available on BBC iPlayer