A storytelling convention can seem quite used up, until someone comes along and invests it with new life. I’m thinking of the “tears of a clown” trope, which has had centuries of use and overuse, spawning a population of fictionalized jokers whose one-liners mask profound sorrow, or depression, or pain, or grief. Take a visit to the TV Tropes website for a broad sampling of Sad Clowns, from Chandler on “Friends” and Patrick Jane on “The Mentalist” to the narrator of the Beatles’ “I’m a Loser,” who sings, “Although I laugh and I act like a clown / Beneath this mask I am wearing a frown.”
One of my favorites is Hawkeye Pierce from “M*A*S*H,” particularly the TV version played by Alan Alda. He was the Godfather of Snark, as his wartime despair and anti-authoritarianism took the happier form of cynical joking, pranks, and martini-sipping. And yet he was the dramatic center of the show, particularly in the series finale, when the ugly truths of battle undid his Swamp-partying denial and he has a breakdown. He was one of TV’s early seriocomic heroes, and “M*A*S*H” was a pioneer of the half-hour-long dramatic comedies we see all over TV right now.
An excellent example of these contemporary dramatic comedies premiered on Amazon in September, and it got a bit lost in the deluge of new network product. It’s called “Fleabag,” it’s available on Amazon, and, like another pair of Amazon comedies, “One Mississippi” and “Catastrophe,” it’s a very manageable six episodes long. Originally a play, the show is from British writer and actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who stars as a London café owner we only know by the nickname Fleabag. It is a portrait — wry and heartbreaking, wise and mysterious — of a Hawkeye.
Fleabag is single, kind of: She keeps breaking up and making up with her boyfriend, Harry, while seeing others at the same time, often strangers. The show is giddily profane, as we follow Fleabag through her sexual adventures. Don’t think she’s like Carrie Bradshaw from “Sex and the City” or Hannah Horvath from “Girls,” looking for true love and good sex in the muddle of urban life. She is deeply detached from her experiences, unable to take them seriously. At one point in her comments to the camera, she says, “I’m not obsessed with sex. I just can’t stop thinking about it. The performance of it. The drama . . . Not so much the feeling of it.”
She’s archly funny, as she repeatedly breaks the fourth wall like Frank Underwood in “House of Cards,” to make acerbic observations about the scene at hand. Sometimes she just gives us a big look, and we know what she’s thinking and it’s usually not very nice. And she is filthy, too, in her asides, as she laughs at the men she sleeps with, riffs about anal sex, and delivers a joke about masturbating to President Obama. The humor isn’t punchline driven; it largely revolves around her feelings of superiority toward others, including her sister Claire, who is married — unhappily, but nonetheless securely. But Waller-Bridge’s delivery, so wide-eyed and tart, easily draws smiles.
And anyway, we know that Fleabag’s humor is actually a mask for her feelings of inferiority. She knows it, too, but that doesn’t stop her. She feels inferior, and she is also fighting with all her might against a number of frustrations and tragedies. Fleabag’s café is failing, and she desperately misses her business partner and best friend, Boo, who recently died. She lost her mother when she was young, and her father is married to a horrid woman (played with brilliant passive-aggression by Olivia Colman) who goes out of her way to torment Fleabag and Claire. There is another critical piece of the tragic puzzle that is Fleabag that I won’t spoil here, but it adds greatly to the weight of the burden she’s carrying around. When I was done with “Fleabag,” that critical piece, which comes late in the series, inspired me to reconsider everything I’d seen before it.
So her jokes are her way of coping, or at least getting through the difficult days. Her sexual escapades are, too. She lives her life as a woman who is proudly unfiltered and willing to make any joke or take any position in bed; and yet she is desperately filtering out her hurt. You realize that she is quite fragile behind all her sexual bluster and her witty defenses. The more we learn about Fleabag, in the present tense but also in a series of flashbacks, the more we can see how desperately she is running from herself. It’s poignant, her battle with self-loathing and heartache, and she becomes more sympathetic despite her brittleness. Waller-Bridge pulls it all off brilliantly.
“Fleabag” reminded me of the brave aspects of many of the Sad Clowns we’ve encountered over the years, who use the tools they know best in order to cope. They’re in a battle with grief, despair, loneliness, and worse, and they refuse to succumb. They’re fighters, like Fleabag, armed with an arsenal of wisecracks.