Fleabag, The Office and the beauty of compact storytelling

The taut, disciplined writing behind Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s acclaimed comedy is reminiscent of the Slough-based mockumentary.

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In the Netflix age, few TV series stand apart as true works of art. Instead, there is an unending deluge of content, as the latest new show follows the latest new show as regularly as night follows day. Much of this glossy programming feels forgettable and commoditised – as though it were destined to briefly feature at the top of a streaming site’s home page before drifting away into the huge online vortex of transient entertainment.

That’s why a show with true artistic value is still able to stand out. Fleabag, which concluded its second series this week, has already achieved greatness both critically and culturally because it doesn’t feel formulaic or focus grouped in any way.

There are some obvious reasons for this, not least the brilliance of Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who writes and stars as a 30-something coffee shop owner trying to come to terms with grief, guilt and her general lack of direction in life. Funny, innovative and daring in its darkness, Fleabag dissects big, troublesome themes – from gender, sex and motherhood, to family dysfunction and religion.

These are all valid reasons for the show’s instant status as a classic, but a lesser-discussed attribute is also its length, and specifically its commitment to compact storytelling. With a run time of just 25 minutes per episode, Waller-Bridge tells the story precisely and economically, allowing her the time and space to experiment with different ideas and dramatic devices (including her frequent ‘fourth wall-breaking’ to-camera asides). Alongside this, her taut, disciplined approach sees her draw out a cast of fully formed characters.

Indeed each supporting player is hugely interesting and complex in their own right, from depressed and inhibited sister Claire (Sian Clifford), to Olivia Colman’s spiteful, manipulative but ultimately insecure stepmother-to-be. With each episode it feels as though more meaning has been built into 25 minutes than an entire series of many big budget, made-for-streaming releases.

By wrapping things up in just 12 episodes over two series (Clifford has said there’ll be no more episodes), Fleabag also shows an acute awareness of when and how to bring a story to its close, unlike countless franchises which have ended up outstaying their welcome.

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Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag

This mastery of compact storytelling brings to mind The Office, the seminal mockumentary co-written by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant that first aired 18 years ago. There are some key similarities between the success of Fleabag and The Office, given the latter also restricted itself to 12 episodes over two series (albeit with an additional two specials).

Both shows grew in popularity through word of mouth, having started out with small budgets and a limited profile. The praise now heaped on Fleabag as something fresh, unique and timely also feels strikingly similar to the many plaudits The Office received in the early noughties.

Similarly, The Office explores big, existential themes through human stories, mixing hilarity with pain and darkness. It develops a cast of wholly convincing, authentic characters (Tim, Dawn, Gareth et al) around the main protagonist of David Brent, and always moves the narrative on with clinical efficiency.

Like in Fleabag, some episodes have a particular hook (Episode 4, Season 1 in The Office positions all the drama around a training session in a single location, just as Fleabag’s opening episode in Season 2 does this around a dinner table). And for its second series, The Office builds in a whole new concept for its protagonist to grapple with (the arrival of the Swindon branch in Brent’s office) just as Fleabag shifts gear in its sophomore series with the arrival of Andrew Scott’s love interest, the priest.

The Office is rightly hailed as one of the greatest British sitcoms of all time, and the response to Fleabag suggests Waller-Bridge’s creation may attain (if it hasn’t already) a similarly lofty status. In both cases, the discipline of the writing in delivering sharp, impactful storytelling is central to their brilliance.

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