FLEABAG and the Masterpiece criteria

The word masterpiece is too often thrown around with abandon in this hyperbolic day and age, but the term might well be apt for the BBC comedy drama Fleabag, which reached a much anticipated conclusion this week.

Writer and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge had to be talked into developing a follow up to her nihilistic dark comedy from 2016, in which she played the titular, unnamed ‘Fleabag’; a grief-stricken early thirty-something in modern London using sex as coping mechanism for her guilt and attachment issues. While it sounds intense on that description, Fleabag was anything but, as the hugely impressive second season has proven. Fleabag was beautiful, insightful, sad, moving, melancholic and laugh out loud funny, often in the most mordant and inappropriate way.

What qualifies it as a masterpiece? That’s the question. What makes it, potentially, as important a piece of comedy and drama to deserve a place among the recognised greats.

Firstly, there is almost no direct criteria for such labelling. Particularly with comedy, given how subjective the form is and how people respond to it in a variety of different ways. Hence why the term ‘masterpiece’ is difficult to quantify in any artistic art form. In the world of art, people point to Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Michaelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, which lies at the heart of the ceiling fresco in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. In cinema, masterpieces refer to work such as Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane or Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.

The world of literature would no doubt single out the plays of William Shakespeare or the novels of Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. Masterpieces are in part a decision made by the collective consciousness; as receptors of art, in whatever form, we judge based on skill, merit, the quality of the artist, and indeed what the art says to us and how it can be read to judge whether what we’re experiencing is the pinnacle of achievement in that field. We have decided the Mona Lisa is a masterpiece and it will forever remain so.

TV comedy has its own fair share of work people would consider worth of labelling as a masterpiece, as does TV drama. Take The Sopranos or Breaking Bad or The Wire for the latter, certainly over the last two decades. These are works audiences repeatedly return to and find either to enrapture or move them creatively, in terms of narrative or characterisation, or have a layered construction from what they can take different things on subsequent rewatches.

Breaking Bad, for example, is not just a poised, darkly comic in places drama about the rise of a drug kingpin, it is also an often bleak and powerful deconstruction of American masculinity, and the role of white collar American men in a world with changing gender and societal roles. At the same time it can be read as the origin story of a comic-book super villain. There are multiple angles with which to examine the journey of Walter White from, as creator Vince Gilligan puts it, “Mr Chips to Scarface”.

This is just one example of how a masterpiece is labelled and subsequently the power of the public consciousness carries it forward with such a title. Do people really question the merit of a masterpiece years later? Even if changing trends or societal movements render that same piece of work outdated?

Leighton Jones suggests you know when you’ve encountered a work that should be defined as a masterpiece because it stays with you for the rest of your life:

A Masterpiece is the work of an artist who has been absorbed by the spirit of his/her times and can transform a personal experience into a universal one. Masterpieces make us forget the artists, and instead direct our attention to the artists works. We may wonder how a particular work was executed, but for the time being we are transposed, so deeply brought into this creation that our consciousness is actually expanded.

Many would argue that Fleabag has provided such an experience, particularly in its second and final season.

Reviews for the latest season have been astronomically good. People are describing what Waller-Bridge created as “electrifying and devastating”. There is something quite transformative and unique about Fleabag. It is why anyone should be hesitant to label it either a drama or comedy or even tragedy. It ebbs and flows between all of these states with a deft brilliance that suggests Waller-Bridge, in her quite phenomenally well written scripts, has tapped into something powerful and almost indefinable. You are left wondering quite how she managed to write something so human, so heartbreaking, so desperately sad and funny, and so riven with subtext, that a hundred writers in a hundred rooms could never put together in a hundred years.

You need time, however, to truly judge a masterpiece for what it is. We rush to judgments about the greatness of art as quickly as we rush to denigrate, especially in this day and age. Temperance is an increasingly lost mode of thinking and most of us are guilty of it. Fleabag is already being described in such hallowed terms by fans and critics alike, which inevitably will give some people pause and lead to questions about whether it was *really* that good. There will come, to some degree, if not a backlash but a resistance from people who prefer to buck the established trend of what is accepted and embraced by the masses. Fleabag, however, is almost impossible to discount as something truly special; a piece of work that could well define its era in the way other comedies or dramas have marked theirs.

Have they all endured as masterpieces, though?

Fawlty Towers was just voted, once again, as the greatest British sitcom of all time. It has been routinely cited as an example of a comedic masterpiece over the last forty years; twelve half hour episodes (just like Fleabag) of perfect British farce, riven with subtextual commentary about dying marriages, heightened sexual repression, class warfare and the death of Empire. It is hard to look back at Fawlty Towers and not see greatness, because so much of it remains incredibly funny and incisive, with characters that transcend stereotypes, but at the same time it *has* dated. Andrew Sachs’ Manuel is undoubtedly a quasi-xenophobic caricature, the bumbling Spanish fool consistently used as psychological and literal punching bag by the faux-upper class British liege lord that is Basil Fawlty. ‘The Germans’ may sympathetically paint a rare black doctor in Torquay as the sane, rational carer, but it gives way to the most blatant anti-German, post-war stereotypes and mines them for comedy, even if they’re designed to make Basil look like the fool.

Second placed on that list was Father Ted, the Irish sitcom from the mid-90’s about a crooked priest on a tiny coastal island filled with weirdos and eccentrics, desperately trying to escape the dysfunctional and strange parochial ‘family’ he ends up stuck with. Again, Father Ted on the whole has aged well, as indeed have many of the jokes (arguably its co-creator Graham Linehan has fared much worse when it comes to ageing gracefully…), but it undoubtedly cleaves to plenty of traditional Irish stereotypes; the toothless simpleton, the aggressive drunk, the devout old Catholic spinster etc… and it encourages the audience to revel in those easy comedic targets. Father Ted’s hyper-real eccentricity and the fact Ted’s amorality is frequently the butt of the joke, much like Basil’s stuff repression makes him the real target, allows the show to get away with it.

It’s quite telling that the third comedy on that Radio Times list is I’m Alan Partridge, another series which balances eccentricity and farce with a flawed, amoral, often quite tragic central character whose lack of awareness is the core of the joke. I discussed the character of Alan Partridge recently in a broader context in terms of his durability as a comic creation, and how he has evolved beyond the fixed entity he could have been, but arguably there is a detachment to these comedies widely regarded as masterpieces.

You’re not encouraged to truly care about these characters as *people*. Father Ted has a warmth the other two series lack, as Ted often finds it difficult to truly leave hapless stooge Dougal or drunken ward Jack to their own devices, but this is driven as much by his own failing as a rounded human being as any desire to truly, altruistically care about another person. The same can be said for The Office, which crafted the now iconic comedy creation of David Brent; yet another in the established British comedy lexicon of tragic male failures. The Office gave way to deeper sentimentality thanks to Brent’s semblance of a character arc exposing his own deep sadness and insecurity at the heart of the comedy aimed at him.

Perhaps Fleabag is being hallowed in the same terms, and in some senses exceeding them, because it is one of the first comedy series that deconstructs a flawed failure of a woman in a similar manner to the established comedy shows widely voted as the best and in some cases considered as masterpieces.

There is Fleabag DNA is plenty of these antecedents, even if they exist in entirely different times, worlds and contexts. Fleabag certainly exists on the fringes of an elitist London; she may be a cafe shop owner but she hails from a distinctly middle class London family with visible wealth, with Olivia Colman’s (wicked) soon to be stepmother living a charmed, bohemian life as a painter, while her sister Claire (played with unheralded brilliance by Sian Clifford) works in big City business. There are class concerns flickering at the edges of Fleabag, even if they’re not as acute as in Fawlty Towers. Equally there are aspects of farce in places, or moments of eccentricity.

Fleabag is not by any means documentarian in its approach but The Office certainly tapped into a millennial malaise with white collar workers about their place in the rampaging capitalist system they had become drones inside, and Fleabag has a similar nihilistic sense of the lead character’s complete insignificance under the weight of a fast-paced, uncaring world, specifically the London she inhabits. If there is one comedy that Fleabag really has its roots in, however, it is without a doubt Peep Show.

There is a strong argument that Peep Show (which also co-starred the ever ascendant Olivia Colman) lingered a few seasons too many by the time it ended with Season 8 in 2014, and while it is often talked about with great reverence, it was perhaps too edgy and on the fringe of mainstream applause to be ranked as a masterpiece in the same manner several of the aforementioned shows have been. Peep Show also broke the trend of being a great comedy with few episodes – Fawlty Towers only had 12, as did I’m Alan Partridge; The Office had 14 while Father Ted had 25. Peep Show ended after 54 episodes across an entire decade, making the careers of stars David Mitchell & Robert Webb and sticking to the same established formula.

Peep Show was the first comedy to get, literally, into the main character’s heads, with their internal monologue providing the deeper thoughts behind what they would say in public, allowing for a river of dark, honest comedy. Equally, the show was filmed entirely in character first person, meaning the only time we saw them was from the perspective of each other. It was a show entirely from the skewed viewpoint of two hapless, thirty-something flatmates struggling with love and sex, crippled by their own existential and weird neuroses.

Sound familiar? Fleabag evolves the Peep Show concept by having the main character make us the silent partner; her glances at the camera or her quick asides to address us, breaking the established ‘fourth wall’ between audience and character, makes us complicit in Fleabag’s adventures. Yet at the same time, we never know her as well as we know Mark or Jeremy from Peep Show, given we experienced their complete thought process. They couldn’t hide anything from us. Fleabag often does, especially across the first season in how she deals with the truth about why her best friend Boo took her own life. Fleabag withholds that information from us until the last possible moment, giving us just flashes of the deeper context, primarily because she can’t look herself in the eye about it. We are, in that sense, her own eye. We’re a reflection of her, or maybe her conscience, her inner ‘id’. There are many ways to interpret quite what Fleabag’s fourth wall breaking device actually does mean, and therein lies the brilliance at the heart of Waller-Bridge’s writing. She leaves a great deal open to interpretation, right down to the series’ heart wrenching final scene.

Does this make the show a masterpiece? What makes Fawlty Towers a masterpiece? The Office is considered a masterpiece by some but many can’t even watch it, or do not in any way track with the comedy or what it’s trying to say. The same can be said of Father Ted or I’m Alan Partridge. They are all subjective experiences which audiences approach from a variety of different backgrounds and states and ways of receiving what is considered funny or affecting. Fawlty Towers has no conclusive ending, with the repeating structure of John Cleese & Connie Booth’s scripts essentially leaving Basil trapped in an eternal loop of furious repression.

Father Ted ends with the character remaining trapped, even if by choice, doomed never to escape his provincial exile; The Office ends with hope for David Brent and, in many respects, a happier ending that anyone may have credited; while I’m Alan Partridge remains simply part of a chapter in life of an enduring balance of fixed entity and ageing dinosaur. Fleabag *ends*. There is both ambiguity and there is not. You feel the pain of a journey which was transformative for us and for the character. She is not the same woman she was at the beginning of the series, even if she doesn’t get the ending the audience want for her. Such is life, you can almost hear Waller-Bridge whisper to the audience over her writing software to us as an aside.

It is, therefore, too early to truly claim Fleabag as a masterpiece. It needs time. We need time. It can be confidently predicted, however, that Fleabag will never be forgotten. It will be recommended, become one of those shows you say to your friend or work colleague or cousin “oh you *have* to watch…”. It will be studied and analysed, poked and prodded. It will also be remembered by those fortunate enough to experience it at its apogee as a very special show that chimed with the world around it, with an insightfulness about love, about hope, about loss and about religious devotion, that most writers could only accomplish in a great novel.

“This is it” remarked Sian Clifford in a recent interview. The show is complete. Maybe that’s why Fleabag is a masterpiece. Maybe in some way it completes us.

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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