Sunday, March 24, 2019

About Fleabag and After Life

Comedy that brands itself as dark and edgy requires a certain amount of resistance from its consumers to justify its existence, so I’m sure Phoebe Waller-Bridge, creator and star of Fleabag (the second series of which is happening on BBC1) was delighted when several people popped up to declare that miscarriage was not something that should be joked about.

In fact, the miscarriage in the first episode was – apart from its initial shock value, because, no, it’s not something you do expect to happen in a sitcom – more of a McGuffin, setting the stage for a climactic, post-prandial punch-up and developing the awkward relationship between the chaotic Fleabag and her superficially in-control sister. It’s a brave, dangerous show, not least because the central character is a gloriously bloody difficult woman; but it still fits into a classic genre, the British comedy of embarrassment. And now (we’re currently half-way through the series) we’re getting properly self-referential and post-modern, as Fleabag’s droll arch glances and one-liners to camera have been noticed by the sweet, sweary, probably alcoholic Catholic priest (Andrew Scott) she’s determined to shag. If the asides were already Brechtian, the explicit reference to them adds so may layers to the artifice it’s hard to see how she can escape. Verfremdungseffekteffekt, maybe?

Of course, the whole idea of acknowledging the camera’s existence was a key element in the success of The Office, the show that brought Ricky Gervais to most people’s attention. This, however, was in the context of realism, as the cameras were there within the fiction (for the fly-on-the-wall documentary that many of us thought we were watching for the first few minutes of episode one) as well as well as in reality.

In his new Netflix show, After Life, there are no furtive glances at the camera. The closest we come are the video messages that the terminally-ill Lisa has recorded for her journalist husband Tony (Gervais) and the clips he’s shot of the daft pranks he played on her in happier times. After his death, he declares that the only thing holding his back from suicide is responsibility to look after his dog; the dénouement is [SPOILER ALERT] that, despite his best efforts to become a walking, talking delivery mechanism for toxic abuse, there are plenty more people who love and need him: a new young writer on the local paper he is assigned to mentor; his sad, adoring godson; the amiable sex worker who cleans his house. If the narrative leans towards gloomy neorealism, the setting is defiantly artificial, a pleasant English rural location somewhere between large village and small town, constantly bathed in improbable sunlight, where everything seems to be within walking distance, including the beach. This of course only serves to set Tony’s seething agony in stark relief.

After Life has also prompted complaints, from those who think the nihilistic despair of the recently bereaved shouldn’t be a matter for comedy and, to an extent, I think they’re on steadier ground here, because that is actually what the show is about; where they’re wrong, though is that After Life isn’t in fact a comedy. Sure, calling a 10-year-old schoolyard bully “a tubby little ginger cunt” offers the same sort of transgressive giggle as Fleabag’s gynaecological mishap, but ultimately Gervais’s offering is a tragedy in which funny things are allowed to happen; Waller-Bridge is orchestrating a farce that occasionally throws up tragic moments. (Incidentally, with regard to the language, Netflix seems to be more forgiving than the Beeb; Scott’s priest character was originally meant to refer to his brother as “a cunt” but this had to be changed to something less offensive. So the absent sibling became “a paedophile”. Which is better, apparently.)

I still don’t buy into this notion that we’re in some golden age of TV; it’s simply that more TV is being made, so inevitably there’s more good stuff to be found. Sturgeon’s Law still applies. But Fleabag and After Life are both clearly in the top 10% of that top 10%. As to which is better, I’d just say that while Fleabag dazzles with its wit and sheer devilish attitude, After Life is more like getting a punch in the gut when you least expect it. Fleabag I watch behind barely parted fingers, gasping at its sheer bloody-mindedness; After Life I can barely watch at all, for all the right reasons. Fleabag is a superb piece of Art, while After Life is Life itself.

PS: This just in, via Henry Hitchings on Twitter: Nabokov reference (unreliable narrator?) at the bus stop

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