Other television shows break the fourth wall—but “Fleabag” does it best – The Economist

IN THE second season of “Fleabag”, the celebrated comedy series written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the titular character is given a counselling session for her birthday by her father. When she attends, hoping to swap the voucher for cash, she is drawn into an interview. The therapist (Fiona Shaw) asks some preliminary questions—why she is here, is she close to her family, and so on—which Fleabag deflects with humour. When she asks about friends, Fleabag makes a joke about her pet guinea pig (the last season followed the character as she struggled to come to terms with the death of her human friend, Boo). She eventually asserts that she does, in fact, have friends and people to talk to, turning to the camera and winking. “They’re always there,” she says, looking to the viewer again, this time with an uneasy, wide-eyed stare. “They’re always there.”

Breaking the fourth wall is hardly a new dramatic device. In ancient Greek plays choruses supply the audience with a commentary on events. In their soliloquies William Shakespeare’s characters offer insights into the inner workings of their minds. The fourth wall has been broken in films from “American Psycho” to “Deadpool”, as well as some recent television shows, such as “House of Cards”. Often the gambit is used for comic reasons: an exclamation or bemused facial expression is an easy way to generate laughs. Sometimes nefarious characters address the camera to divulge details of their schemes. But “Fleabag”, which started out as a one-woman theatre show, is unusual not only for the frequency of these breaks, but the myriad purposes they serve.

The most obvious is to create dramatic irony. Inevitably for a show that looks unflinchingly at sex—it is Fleabag’s vice, and every other character seems to have a strange relationship with it—breaking the fourth wall is a way for the narrator to give voice to her private desires. This might not seem particularly groundbreaking: scriptwriters have long used the tension between the heart’s longings and polite conversation as fodder for jokes. It was the basis of “Miranda”, a sitcom about a hapless woman unlucky in love, as well as some awkward workplace flirting in “The Office” and “Parks and Rec”. (The technique is also a staple of interior monologues, in productions such as “Peep Show” and “Bridget Jones”.)

But Fleabag’s concerns are not purely romantic. When she reveals hidden feelings in her asides, they tend to be bound up with other issues. She wants to wind up her sister, Claire (Sian Clifford); she wants to outflank her awful godmother (Olivia Colman); and in the new season, she toys with defrocking a dishy Catholic priest (Andrew Scott). The “hello Father” that she utters to the camera is much dirtier than the one she offers to the minister himself (the therapist suggests, cryptically, that perhaps Fleabag would like to “fuck God”). 

If those confessions hint at Fleabag’s darkness, then the moments of exposition are blacker still. Filling the audience in on backstory and characterisation, with brutal honesty, gets the viewer quickly up to speed. In the first season, when Fleabag and Claire attend a feminist lecture, she explains that her father has paid for a series of them since their mother died because he had no idea how to handle the situation. He quickly began a relationship with their godmother, she discloses, and stopped calling. We discover that Claire is patronising about money and her husband Martin (Brett Gelman), who has a drinking problem, is wont to make painfully inappropriate comments. “Fleabag” wastes no episodes building impressions, introducing its awful characters with brisk descriptions and allowing more time to be given over to bickering and mishaps.

Yet although the format seems to lend itself to straight confession, and a chance to hear a character’s honest thoughts, it eventually becomes clear that Fleabag is in fact an unreliable narrator. For the majority of the first season she withheld the fact that she slept with Boo’s boyfriend, prompting her friend to injure and kill herself. When confronted about it, Fleabag glances, panicked, into the camera, looks away and then back again, as if worried about the audience’s reaction. Her understanding of people and situations is blinkered. She takes Claire at her word when she says she will leave Martin, for example, and believes one sexual partner to be in love with her when he is in fact in love with someone else. Rather than being candid, Fleabag often misleads the viewer.  

The shrewd use of the fourth wall is only one reason why “Fleabag” is such a joy to watch: as well as making acute observations, the show is hilarious and superbly acted. That scene in the therapist’s chair is intriguing, particularly because this season follows Fleabag as she seeks to move past her previous mistakes. Will the viewer be her friend, or hold her to account?

The second season of “Fleabag” is being released on the BBC now. It will be available on Amazon from May 17th