The "Fleabag" Blueprint
Here I go, trying to express my admiration.
WARNING: PROFANITY AND SPOILERS AHEAD.
I’ve been writing a TV series with two of my very good friends and for a lot of the structure, humor and pacing, I keep turning to Fleabag and its transcripts, Fleabag: The Scriptures, for inspiration.
That scene on the Underground where “Sail” is playing and she ends with “I think my period’s coming”? GENIUS.
The transitions, whether it’s the heavy metal theme music or between scenes? ASTOUNDING.
Everything about Godmother? BRILLIANT.
For the record, referring to the narrator as “Fleabag” is PERVERSE because she INTENTIONALLY doesn’t have a name and to give her one OFFENDS ME and so henceforth I shall refer to her as The Narrator.
But I don’t think I’ll ever be able to rewatch Season 1 in its entirety. There was a time when I refused to recommend the show to people because I was so incredibly devastated by the ending. As someone who’s been in a position that’s not dissimilar to The Narrator’s, the idea of my experience ending with what happened to Boo is so heartbreaking that I can’t breathe when I think about it.
I’m not saying that comedy isn’t at its heart supposed to be a tragedy: I’m Jewish. All Jewish comedy is tragic. Look at The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel – you know the real Jew in that show? Lenny Bruce. Lenny Bruce is hysterical, and tragic. (LUKE KIRBY!!) You know who isn’t tragic? Mrs. Maisel. That’s why they got a gentile to play her.
The first time I witnessed comedy ending on a tragic note, it was Funny Girl (JEWISHHHHHHH). That was a hilarious movie featuring Barbra Streisand lying about roller skating and becoming a big star and it was all fun and dandy and then it had such a sad third act and 12-year-old me didn’t know how to handle it, except to say that I wouldn’t ever watch it again.
Then Season 2 of Fleabag came and I couldn’t NOT watch it. There was a Hot Priest. There was a FIRE first episode of the gathering in the restaurant.
It was Season 1 but tighter. Better.
Not only because of The Priest. But largely because of him.
The Priest is obsessed with vestments and foxes and not sleeping with The Narrator. He’s charming and witty and makes believing in God seem less preachy and self-righteous than approximately every other believer on earth. He’s not even trying to be sexy; it just happens! HIS BEAUTIFUL NECK!
The sheer audacity of The Narrator to speak to us like this:
JUST TO BE CALLED OUT ON IT LATER WITH THIS:
He really knows our secrets!! Even the ones we’ve been keeping for The Narrator!!!
One of the most amazing scenes to me is when The Priest is sitting in the café, trying to get The Narrator to open up. We’ve already seen him see us. That happened at night, behind the church, when The Narrator cheekily turns to us and let’s us know they’ll only last a week as friends. The Priest asks her then, “Where did you just go?” but decides not to press the issue and then oop! there’s a fox!
But in the café scene, he pushes her. He pushes her to open up and she can’t talk about her dead friend and she can’t let him in and even though she knows she shouldn’t, she looks to us for help. It’s in that moment that The Priest turns to us as well, wanting to know what she sees.
This scene … God, this scene. It’s so beautiful.
But the craziest thing is that it was at its most beautiful the first time I saw it.
Take this scene in Schitt’s Creek, the “fold in the cheese” scene:
This is a scene built to be rewatched. I don’t know if they knew it was quotable when they made it, but it’s a very quotable scene and it gets better every time. It gets better the more familiar you are with Moira Rose’s fanTAStic inflections; it gets better the longer you watch the Roses evolve. When you rewatch it, it gets better.
The first time I rewatched the café scene in Fleabag, I found it the opposite. I was expecting something mind-blowing, on par with the huge themes it implies.
Instead, it becomes a quiet scene. There’s the one moment where The Priest shouts at the camera, but it goes by so quickly. The scene is mostly The Narrator being obstinate and hurt.
I have enormous respect for a scene written in service of the story, and not the scene itself. I think about this sometimes – especially in light of the TV series my team and I are currently writing – because sometimes what makes a show are the catch phrases. The notable scenes. The parts you can watch over and over again: “Oh, I’m going to watch the wedding episode.” “I’m going to watch the one where this one discovers the truth.” “I’m going to watch the epiphany scene.” Occasionally in the middle of a writing session I’ll turn to my collaborators and be like, This make for good merch. Or this would be a good catch phrase. I find it’s harder to inject into the scene afterward, so it’s helpful to keep marketing in mind during the process.
Fleabag doesn’t do that. You’d be hard-pressed to find a catch phrase anywhere. It’s just really good, really tight writing. I feel like the scene in the café would be so much more dramatic – à la the Schitt’s Creek scene – if the show wanted to create something memorable out of it, but it’s not. The point of the scene is in the first watching, not the rewatching.
I wouldn’t call Fleabag understated. But it’s clearly a gestated work. It was thought out, gone over, replayed and made the absolute best it could be. And I hope we accomplish that in our own work.
I leave you with this, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s iconic post-Emmys shot from Josh Cole: