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Watch Waterfalls of Pity Roar

Of all my jobs in this world, the one I take most seriously is consuming pop culture so that I can tell my readers what’s good and what’s overrated. This weekend was no exception, as I enjoyed some new music and films, and caught up on some prestige television. So this week, I’m devoting Daily Fuel to my thoughts on a few important entertainment items. Today: Fleabag.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that, as a monkish devotee to TV writing, I had never seen an episode of Fleabag until this week. I kept hearing that there was this brilliant British sitcom on Amazon, but life always got in the way. When a publication I love dearly named it the second-best TV show of the decade, after just two seasons, I knew I had to give it a try.

For those who are also behind on their must-see TV, Fleabag is a sitcom created by and starring the multi-multi-hyphenate Phoebe Waller-Bridge. She’s probably the biggest rising star in entertainment, having also created Killing Eve and writing the new James Bond movie. But the sitcom is her most personal work, in which she plays a witty girl named Fleabag who is incapable of keeping her life together. Waller-Bridge’s talent is undeniable, as she has some of the funniest, subtlest facial expressions I’ve ever seen. The episodes are also expertly-crafted, and I can tell she took more than a few writing classes.

But this is a hype train I can’t quite board. And the issue is bigger than anything that happens on the show.

My issue is that it falls into what I see as an incredibly tired category of comedy. I call it the “My Life’s a Mess But I’ll Compensate With Humor LOL” school of writing. There are so many films and shows about young people who make horrible decisions, are aware of their horrible decisions, but do nothing about it. They laugh at their own incompetence, they use gallows humor to poke fun at their own shortcomings, but they never actually fix anything. This genre has been done well quite a few times, from This Is Our Youth in the 90s to BoJack Horseman and almost every stand-up comedian currently working. Fleabag is a classic example of this, as the titular character frequently breaks the fourth wall and explains her bad decisions to the audience.

Going to an art college, I can see the effect this has on young people. It seems to create a culture in which it becomes cool to constantly draw attention to the things you do badly, and even cooler to joke about them instead of fixing them. I certainly don’t mean to say that honesty is bad, or that every character needs to be a role model. I’ve enjoyed many comparable shows in the past. But as I get older, I no longer find it funny to laugh at characters who knowingly make messes of their lives. If I want to mock someone, I prefer the oblivious stupidity of characters in films like Bottle Rocket. And if I want a relatable protagonist I can root for, they should make some effort to improve themselves. Not as an attempt to claim moral high ground, but simply because I think that makes for better entertainment.

Fleabag is clearly an example of this trope executed at the highest level. The character’s adventures running a failing business and sabotaging relationships has made millions of people laugh. But I’ve seen these themes so many times that it feels stale. It’s incredibly honest, but to what end? I personally don’t find it funny, and I can’t be the only one who thinks we’d all benefit from a fresh approach to comedy. I’m clearly in the minority with these thoughts, so you should all check out the show. But I can’t call this show a net positive for society, and I can’t help but wonder if we’d all benefit from more optimism in our Peak TV.

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I would rather read a poorly structured story that has fresh ideas than a tightly structured one with cliches.
— Douglas Wood
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