TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In the acclaimed British television series, "Fleabag," the show's creator and writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge stars as a young Londoner struggling to make sense of sex, family and life itself. Season 2 of this series drops on Amazon Friday, and our critic at large John Powers says it's a show charged with brilliance.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: When Lena Dunham's "Girls" appeared seven years ago now, it cleared the path for a parade of smart, provocative television shows about smart, provocative young heroines. The best of the bunch may well be "Fleabag," the hilarious, raunchy and unexpectedly touching Amazon series by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the British writer and actress who created the terrific TV adaptation of "Killing Eve" and was recently asked to punch up the script of the new "James Bond" movie. Waller-Bridge knows how to have fun with the flickering currents of female wit, desire, insecurity and anger.
The first season of "Fleabag" charts the confusion of Waller-Bridge's title character, the 20-something owner of a floundering London cafe who's dealing with the tragic death of her BFF. Lanky and libidinous, sex is both her torment and her refuge. Fleabag is also startlingly self-dramatizing. She constantly breaks the so-called fourth wall to talk to us directly as she enjoys kinky sex, bickers with her success-mad sister Claire played by Sian Clifford or bemoans that her widower father - that's Bill Paterson - has taken up with her godmother, a two-faced artist played by the just-Oscared Olivia Colman.
Season 2 finds Fleabag's world changing beneath her feet with her sister's marriage in trouble and her dad about to wed the godmother she can't stand. Searching for peace, she veers off in the strangest direction. She gets the hots for a sexy, foul-mouthed, Roman Catholic priest played by Andrew Scott, the wonderful Irish actor best known here as Professor Moriarty on "Sherlock." This irreverent reverend senses her inner distress, and the two develop a relationship that may or may not court mortal sin. Here he asks Fleabag to tea in his office which is filled with junk - he calls it tat - for his church's flea market.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FLEABAG")
ANDREW SCOTT: (As The Priest) Sorry about all the tat. It's for a fundraiser garden party thing tomorrow - so much stuff, absolutely no staff. You can volunteer if you want (laughter).
PHOEBE WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) Ah.
SCOTT: (As The Priest) I'm only joking.
WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) Oh.
SCOTT: (As The Priest) Probably got a life. What's the time? Do you want a proper drink? I've got cans of G&T from M&S.
WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) Well, I'd say...
SCOTT: (As The Priest) I will if you will.
WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) OK.
SCOTT: (As The Priest) OK, yeah.
WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) So you're a cool priest, are you?
SCOTT: (As The Priest) A cool priest?
WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) Yeah.
SCOTT: (As The Priest) No, I'm a big reader with no friends. Are you a cool person?
WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) Oh, I'm a pretty normal person.
SCOTT: (As The Priest) A normal person?
WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) Yeah, a normal person.
SCOTT: (As The Priest) What makes you a normal person?
WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) Well, I don't believe in God.
(SOUNDBITE OF PICTURE FALLING)
POWERS: The sound you heard at the end was a picture falling off the wall at Fleabag's impious words.
As it riffs on questions of belief, Season 2 pulls off the rare feat of taking a hugely successful show and making it much better in part by revealing the limitations of the original. Where the enjoyable first season proved Waller-Bridge's versatility as an actress, her eyes have the animated eloquence of a silent film star's. It sometimes betrayed its origins as a one-woman theatrical show. It was a tad too eager to tickle the audience with its naughtiness, and the other characters felt less lived-in than they should. At times the whole world seemed like an adjunct to Fleabag's psyche.
In the second season, everything is richer and more fluid. Fleabag's family takes on a new emotional solidity. Even Claire's cartoonishly noxious husband played by Brett Gelman develops some shading. And in Scott, Waller-Bridge has found her perfect foil. With his oddball timing and slightly intoxicated affect, his priest does for Fleabag what his Moriarty did for Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes. He knocks her out of her comfort zone.
While all six parts are good, I want to single out the third, one of the greatest episodes of television I've ever seen. Juggling low comedy and high wit, it moves from a farcical gag about flatulence to Kristin Scott Thomas' character giving a majestic speech about women's aging to a breathtakingly intimate scene with the priest in which Waller-Bridge takes the convention of a character directly addressing the audience and gives it a spin so original it's thrilling. You grasp what makes him and their relationship so special.
Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that the aim of philosophy is to show the fly the way out of the fly bottle that imprisons it. Season 2 finds Fleabag trying to escape the fly bottle of her own head with all its theatrical loneliness and longing. Without ever getting precious or self-helpy, it's about learning to believe in the possibility of human relationships that are genuine, emotionally connected and capable of enduring. Whether Fleabag reaches such belief you'll have to decide.
For her part, Waller-Bridge has made a decision of her own. Resisting the current imperative to keep shows going season after season, she's already announced that this is the end of "Fleabag," which is just further proof of how great the show is. After all, if there's anything harder than making a good season of television, it's knowing when you've said what you had to say.
GROSS: John Powers reviewed the BBC Amazon series "Fleabag." The second season starts streaming on Amazon Friday. Earlier this week, we broadcast an interview with the creator and star of "Fleabag," Phoebe Waller-Bridge. You can hear it on our podcast. And if you missed this week's two-part interview with Howard Stern or our archive interview with Doris Day, you'll find those on our podcast, too.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner, and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
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