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The Late Great

Before Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge Reinvented the Sitcom With Crashing

As canny as Waller-Bridge is in tackling well-worn TV tropes, she's also a great fan of many of the genres she mocks, particularly the romantic comedy.
  • Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Crashing (Photo: Everett Collection; Primetimer graphic)
    Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Crashing (Photo: Everett Collection; Primetimer graphic)

    In The Late Great, Primetimer staffers and contributors revisit shows that were cut short, but still cast a long shadow over the TV landscape.

    We live in a post-Fleabag world. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s comedy, based on her one-woman play, became an instant critical phenomenon that won a slew of awards and inspired countless think pieces about the future of TV. A mere two years after its finale, Rolling Stone ranked it as the fifth-greatest TV show of all time. The success of Fleabag saw Waller-Bridge elevated from a bit-part performer to the Voice of a Generation, a storyteller of impeccable timing who captured something achingly precise about life as a perennially chaotic millennial woman. None of this came out of nowhere, and Fleabag wasn’t the magical debut many sold it as in those glowing “a star is born” write-ups.

    The foundations of what made Fleabag so special are rooted in the one-season series Waller-Bridge made before it. Crashing, a six-episode ensemble comedy that premiered on Channel 4 in the UK (before screening on Netflix worldwide, where it still resides), feels like the Rosetta Stone of Phoebe Waller-Bridge. It’s all here: her genre savvy, her candor in tackling messy female characters, her playful but scathing subversion of expected TV tropes, and her dissection of the omnipresent antihero in modern entertainment.

    Crashing introduces Waller-Bridge in a very Waller-Bridge manner. She plays Lulu, an aimless woman in search of something tangible. The camera pans to her on a bus playing her ukulele, looking like one of Zooey Deschanel’s manic pixie offspring. The potential sweetness of the moment is immediately savaged when a fellow passenger tells her to shut the hell up. There’s no joy to be found in being the quirky one. Lulu meets up with her old friend Anthony, who has found a curious living situation. He and his “flatmates” stay in an abandoned hospital, where they act as property guardians (the British version of legal squatting) in exchange for cheap rent.

    The residents include Anthony’s understandably uptight fiancée Kate, the resident horndog Sam (a pre-Bridgerton Jonathan Bailey), meek Fred, French artist Melody, and sad divorcee Colin. Lulu soon moves in and shenanigans unfold. Well, that and a lot of drama.

    Brits are the kings of desperately trying to avoid awkwardness at all costs and exacerbating the situation at the same time. The Crashing flatmates’ troubles are also bound by the restrictions of their lease, wherein they’re banned from doing anything remotely fun. As Melody declares, “You're not allowed to have parties, cook meals, light candles, have sex, express emotion, claim any rights, argue if they want to throw you out with only two days' notice, or smoke.” Of course, they do basically all of that. This is Friends for the austerity era, so very British in its willingness to elicit cringe from every conceivable situation. Wouldn’t you let your life fall apart if you were staying in a disintegrating hospital and expected to be grateful for it? No rent controlled penthouses here.

    We like tropes, we’re comforted by the structure these storytelling pillars offer us. There’s a reason every network sitcom utilizes them sooner or later. So much of Crashing feels like a more grounded take on series like Friends or How I Met Your Mother, where these tropes were at the forefront of some of the most popular shows of the past 30 years. You have the love triangle, the quirky one, the sad divorced one, the Casanova. People freak out over sharing living spaces. There are potentially outlandish parties, overly dramatic colleagues, and family tensions.

    A lot of this seems highly familiar, cliched even. Waller-Bridge is seldom intrigued by the path most trodden, mercifully. Lulu clearly wants to be more interesting than she actually is, hence the nickname and ukulele (which she refers to as “uku-lulu”, a phrase that is literally impossible to say without wincing.) All attempts to prove her uniqueness only further strengthen her narcissism. Think of her as the Fleabag without a financial safety net. Kate is the stuck-up one but with the agony of self-awareness on her side, exhausted by being the responsible one for a building full of screw-ups. Melody's lust for an older, duller man is less endearing than sad, with the Freudian agonies of it on display for practically everyone except the one who won't bed her. Being her muse is too weighty a responsibility.

    Bailey’s Sam makes for an especially interesting inversion of sitcom expectations. He so easily could have been the Joey Tribbiani or Barney Stinson of the group, the adorkable misogynist whose lothario ways offer little emotional resonance. Instead, he genuinely tangles with how his growing feelings for someone batter against his preferred immaturity. His sex-maniac tendencies are partly rooted in his grief over the loss of his father to cancer of an especially sensitive body part, but Crashing also makes it clear that he's just a cad finally growing a heart. That he ends up falling for a guy, and thus dealing with newly uncovered queer desire, is handled so matter-of-factly that you feel mad that U.S. sitcoms couldn’t even be bothered to escape the binary.

    As canny as Waller-Bridge is in tackling well-worn TV tropes, it’s clear that she’s also a great fan of many of the genres she mocks, particularly the romantic comedy. The most achingly well-realized moments in Fleabag’s second season revolve around the doomed romance with the hot priest. Of course, she’s far too interested in human nature to ever allow something so pat as a traditional happy-ever-after. In Crashing, the love triangle between Lulu, Anthony, and Kate is given the spark of a classic romance, but never allowed to overshadow the sheer emotional agony of such a situation.

    Therein lies much of Waller-Bridge’s storytelling savvy. She doesn’t make Kate unlikable to justify Lulu’s invasion of her friend’s relationship (this is no Ross/Rachel/Emily problem, and no one is ever on a break.) When Kate first meets Lulu, whose past with her fiancée she knows all too well, she tries to play the cool girl role. Instead, she makes a clumsy comment about not even liking Anthony. Her dynamic with Lulu has strong echoes of that of Fleabag and her sister Claire, the lovable f*ck-up and the strait-laced serious girl. Here, however, there’s no love lost.

    Being in a sitcom is a recipe not merely for disaster but for an emotional dissection that is certain to cause much collateral damage. This is what has made Phoebe Waller-Bridge so thrilling as a creator. Yet, nestled beneath that spiky and often harsh exterior is a fully beating heart that has never give up on hope. Fleabag’s series finale is a tear-jerker, to be sure, but it’s also an open conclusion for its title character, confirmation that maybe, just maybe, she’s going to be alright. We never got to see where Waller-Bridge would have taken Crashing, but its mixture of abrasiveness and optimism suggests a similar path. Being a comedy character sucks, but sometimes the laughs and the pain can pay off.

    Kayleigh Donaldson is a writer of film and pop culture features for Screen Rant and Pajiba. Also seen at SyFy Fangrrls and Bright Wall Dark Room.

    TOPICS: Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Channel 4, Crashing, Friends, How I Met Your Mother, Damien Molony, Jonathan Bailey, Julie Dray, Louise Ford