By Chris Schulz*
Phoebe Waller-Bridge's cracking comedy is back, and it might be the best thing you see on TV this year, writes Chris Schulz.
Fleabag's second season, which begins screening in New Zealand today, begins with a dinner party. This isn't any old dinner party - it's a get together borne from every conceivable familial nightmare.
Across an excruciating 25 minutes, the six people involved engage in sexualised small-talk, expose long-standing rifts, use the phrase "family gang bang", and discuss testicles for far too long. It's so tense, two characters abandon six months of sobriety along the way.
But it gets worse. Much worse. At one point, the question, "Are you pissed off - or are you doing a poo?" gets asked in the restaurant's bathroom. At another, a brawl erupts that manages to drag in a waitress. The episode ends with a trip to the hospital. No one seems to eat. At this table, survival is more important than food.
In the history of TV family get-togethers, from the outright disdain shown every Sunday night in The Sopranos household, to the hierarchical chess game that plays out during a birthday party in Ray Donovan's second season, or Steve Carell uttering, "Do you have any idea the toll three vasectomies can have on a man?" in The Office's finest moment, Fleabag manages to out-awkward them all.
It's a stunning episode of television that does everything a second season needs to do, deepening its existing characters while introducing new ones, and celebrating their shared history while hinting at where they're about to go. Remarkably, it's also among the funniest half hours you'll witness on a screen this year.
But it's just one reason to be watching Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge's acclaimed British comedy about a millennial behaving badly.
For starters, this has been a long time coming. Fleabag's first season turned Waller-Bridge into a star, and she's been busy, creating Killing Eve, a killer show about a brutal assassin with much higher stakes than Fleabag, and landing a role in Star Wars. It wasn't great Star Wars, but having Star Wars on your CV isn't a bad thing.
She was clearly getting big money offers, so the fact Waller-Bridge returned to make a second season of Fleabag shows how personal it is to her. She's clearly learned a few tricks since season one. Her hallmarks - that sizzling dialogue, those outlandish characters, and the frantic editing set to an uber cool soundtrack - are all peaking here. But she adds more layers, deepening the payoff.
You get the sense the cast knows they're involved in something special too. Olivia Coleman is always great, but it's unlikely she'll top her role as a sex-obsessed stepmother. Sian Clifford, who plays Waller-Bridge's sister Claire, is a tightly wound knot, constantly set to explode. Brett Gelmen has played some terrible men in his time, but none worse than Martin, Claire's rage-filled alcoholic husband.
In one of the many pieces-to-camera that punctuate the show, Waller-Bridge calls this "a love story". You will laugh a lot. I did, and I probably laughed harder on my second viewing. But that finale, when it hits, will squeeze your heart.
When Jodie Comer, the 26-year-old actress who plays the lead role in Killing Eve, accepted the award for best actress at the Baftas earlier this week, she stammered her way through a teary acceptance speech that spent most of its time thanking just one person: Waller-Bridge.
Comer called her "a friend … an inspiration" and "the most talented person I know". She also used another word to describe her: "Genius". It's early days, but with two great shows in the bag, Waller-Bridge certainly seems to be heading that way.
All six episodes of Fleabag's second season are available to stream via Amazon Prime Video from today.
* Chris Schulz is a freelance journalist writing predominantly about the entertainment industry.