You’ve watched all twelve episodes of Fleabag three times now – where to from here? Laura Vincent has your next obsession sorted.
It must be just splendid to be Phoebe Waller-Bridge in 2019, with absolutely everyone (including celebrities like Joss Whedon, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Minnie Driver) going mad for Fleabag, the show she created and stars in. It is, on the other hand, apparently a terrible time for anyone who has finished watching the show’s second and final season. People are falling over themselves with praise, unable to ululate superlatives fast enough, swearing to give up writing since there’s no point even trying when something as stellar as Fleabag exists, simply lacerated with misery now that the show has ended while forlornly contemplating what’s left of their dull futures. I’m not exaggerating about the exaggerating: to quote the aforementioned Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, “how do I watch anything else or make anything else or live my life or breathe or feel or care.”
Fleabag (which you can watch on Amazon Prime) is part of that resolutely British tradition where every TV show is seemingly competing to have the least output across the longest period of time. This series in its entirety took almost three years to deliver us 12 episodes of 22 minutes each. If you, too, are feeling bereft and crestfallen at the snuffing of this show’s brief, flickering candle, and are yearning for more dark, women-led, quality writing for the medium of television, may I make a suggestion?
It’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a musical comedy about mental health and misleading romantic tropes! Before you argue that not one of those words sounds appealing, I freely concede that it’s not, at first glance, anything like Fleabag. Whereas Fleabag has quiet Anglo-repression, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend gives you colour, noise and American brashness. Whereas Fleabag delights in the subtleties of unhappiness, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend likes to explain the jokes with an emphatic wink. Whereas Fleabag’s tenure was clipped, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend ran for four seasons from 2015 to April of this year, with a total of 62 hour-long episodes (the first three seasons are on Netflix now).
And whereas Fleabag had an alarmingly charismatic Hot Priest, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend also has an alarmingly charismatic hot priest. Wait, what? Let’s explore these connections further.
Both shows have titles that hold you at a distance
The title of Fleabag is never explained or even mentioned in the show itself. It’s not a pleasant word, but it does catch the eye and somehow conveys the simmering messiness that pervades the series. There’s also a strange tenderness to it, as it comes from a family nickname for Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and became a stand-in moniker for her unnamed lead character (and will be how I refer to her from here on.) The term “crazy ex-girlfriend”, on the other hand, is used to directly describe Rebecca Bunch, the lead character portrayed by show creator Rachel Bloom, but as she argues back in the season one theme song, “that’s a sexist term” and “the situation’s a lot more nuanced than that.”
The idea is unpacked further as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend progresses, with the second season’s theme song claiming “when you call her crazy, you’re just calling her in love” and the third season’s song (yes, the series has a new theme song and credits sequence for each season) reflecting helplessly upon the mess that has ensued: “you do, you don’t wanna be crazy, to clarify, yes, no on the crazy — we hope this helps!” Essentially, Bloom and Waller-Bridge are both setting you up for subverted expectations before you’ve even started the show.
Both shows play with reality and form
Fleabag delights in breaking the fourth wall, which can undercut the tension or ramp it up spectacularly depending on which way Waller-Bridge decides to move her knife, and it’s rather delicious receiving her droll asides or knowing glances in the middle of sex scenes, fights, or dull conversations. We accept it as part of the reality of the show, so it’s startling when the Hot Priest character can also see her attention sliding towards us, the viewers.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s brand of heightened reality takes the form of musical numbers which are presented as Rebecca Bunch’s way of making sense of the world. They too become the show’s reality until, in the very last episode, Rebecca’s best friend Paula shocks us by asking Rebecca, just as she’s clearly about to drift off into another song fantasy, “what are you doing?”. The songs that punctuate Crazy Ex-Girlfriend aren’t just exceptionally well-written and often note-perfect genre parodies, about subjects you didn’t even know you needed songs for (‘Don’t Be A Lawyer’; ‘The Sexy Getting-Ready Song’; ‘I Gave You A UTI’). They’re also a brilliant vehicle for plot development, while showing off the talents of the sublimely talented cast.
In both cases there’s something about a protagonist being caught in the act of being a protagonist that’s completely disarming, but also an effective way of showing who really sees and understands them the most.
Both shows have one relationship that’s more important than the rest – and it’s not necessarily the relationship you think it will be
I love Fleabag most when she’s with her sister Claire, a character who makes you both cheer and cry “kindly, step on my neck!” whenever she fills the screen with her perpetual frosty vexation. Their often reluctant and largely incremental unity is immensely rewarding, especially in the series finale when Claire – aloof and taciturn Claire! – tells Fleabag “the only person I’d run through an airport for is you”.
I think it’s important that this references a trope most commonly used in romantic situations – it shows that their relationship is the real happy ending (or as close as we get) of the series. Meanwhile, the very title of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend implies a heavy focus on romance, but through it all it’s Rebecca and Paula’s friendship that anchors the story and provides the show with its emotional heart. They progress through mutual codependency and willingly terrible decisions (as Paula rousingly sings, “Face your fears! Run with scissors!”), to develop a wonderful relationship based on trust. They see each other’s potential and want nothing but the best for them – a true love story.
Both shows’ creators play fearless, exhilaratingly heedless lead characters
You’re not necessarily supposed to like these characters or agree with their actions, but they are nevertheless unsettlingly compelling. (Rachel Bloom described Rebecca Bunch as a “bubbly Walter White” and there’s definitely a resemblance, as Rebecca creates more and more layers of frantic deception. There’s less romantic comedy in Breaking Bad, though).
From “well, since we’re here” sex to questionable business ventures to bone-clenchingly awkward public displays of defiance, Rebecca and Fleabag both barrel through life, and their creators are not afraid to bare themselves in highly specific and not always metaphorical ways. Fleabag looks us dead in the eyes to narrate the anal sex she’s having in the show’s first three minutes; Rebecca gets taunted by her crush’s sexually adventurous yoga instructor girlfriend who claims “anal doesn’t hurt at all, most times I prefer it”.
Fleabag is nonplussed as her lover yells during sex about how small her breasts are; Rebecca sings a song called ‘Heavy Boobs’ in which she calmly and repeatedly instructs us that the titular body parts are merely “sacks of yellow fat.” Fleabag runs into a lover while shopping for tampons, and when he gamely says “I hope it’s a light flow” she replies “oh, it never is. It. Never. Is.”. Meanwhile, roughly once a month, Rebecca breaks into a song called ‘Period Sex‘. Think of a place, any place: they’ll both go there.
Both shows get dark, dark, dark
Without giving away specifics, Fleabag and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are equally unflinching in their portrayals of where our brains can lead us and in their use of black comedy to process it. They also certainly don’t hold back on winding up a season in a way that makes you fall to your knees and cry “damn that is emotionally draining quality television!”
Both explore the general difficulty of existence
While they’re coming at it from different directions, both shows really capture the exhaustion that comes from just being yourself. There’s a fantastic scene at the end of Fleabag’s first season where she uses the word “fuck” interchangeably to mean sex and also “to ruin” and wonders if everyone feels like she does or if she’s completely alone. After all her wit and wry nods to us, she just comes undone, and the display of sheer emotion, of the grief, the guilt, of everything she’s been holding onto, is incredibly affecting.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is excellent at conveying the absolute tiring slog that is trying to get from day to day not knowing what’s wrong with you or how to even find out. Its exploration of mental health issues is unbelievably impressive, and there’s not much it leaves out, from the side-effects and surprising normality of Fluoxetine and Citalopram, to that clouds-parting feeling of finally getting an accurate diagnosis.
Both shows have incredible therapists played by amazing actors
In Fleabag, we get the wonderful Fiona Shaw who calmly and shrewdly takes in Fleabag saying things like “I spent most of my adult life using sex to deflect from the screaming void inside my empty heart” and “I’m very horny and your little scarf isn’t helping” and “I want to fuck a priest.”
The therapist’s response? “I understand.”
Therapist: “Do you really want to fuck the priest, or do you want to fuck God?”
Fleabag: “Can you fuck God?”
Therapist: “Oh yes.”
In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend it’s the excellent Michael Hyatt (who you probably know from The Wire) as the long-suffering Doctor Akopian. She dispenses wise advice like “sometimes love isn’t a person, it’s a passion,” and “if you make an appointment and get help, I won’t press charges,” and admirably persists with Rebecca despite no initial evidence that she is taking any of Dr Akopian’s teaching on board.
Both shows have disconcertingly unlikeable maternal characters played by amazing actors
Fleabag is not only working through the recent death of her mother, but also her father’s new relationship with her truly awful godmother, played by the stalwart Olivia Colman. Colman seems like a sweetheart in real life and yet she’s so convincingly despicable in Fleabag, a clear testament to both the writing and her acting. In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Rebecca has a highly unsteady relationship with her terrifying mother who is both withholding and overbearing at the same time, equal parts La Mer and manipulation, played with stern gusto by Broadway legend Tovah Feldshuh.
Both shows have – as promised – a Hot Priest
The second Andrew Scott appeared on Fleabag as the sweary, self-deprecating Hot Priest, otherwise sensible people found themselves rushing to social media to blurt out uncouth statements like “he could break my fourth wall.” He has everyone positively frothing at the mouth at how exquisitely verboten he is, and I admit, I am not immune. I mean, he is astonishingly entrancing, isn’t he, as he tortures himself with his feelings for both God and Fleabag?
But excuse me, do you have a minute to talk about the Good News that is Rene Gube as Father Brah in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend?
He’s funny (“Please, Mr Brah was my father. I’m Father Brah,”) he’s wise (“two things is a lot for one brain”), he offers solemn counsel and looks heart-flutteringly hot while doing it.
And he, too, is a bad boy of the cloth who doesn’t play by the rules, albeit in a very legal and Californian way (in that weed is totally legal there, and he smokes it).
Both Fleabag and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are not without their faults, some minor and some glaring, and I believe strongly that there’s space for criticism of both. But I also understand that sense of overwhelming connection to someone’s work, of having parts of you that were hidden deep inside suddenly articulated on screen in full colour, and I definitely get that gulping-for-air sadness at something you love being over and done with.
So if you’re craving more effervescent bleakness with a bonus worldview-challengingly handsome priest on the side, then Crazy Ex-Girlfriend could just be the next show to cleverly and methodically ruin your life.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.