This Way Up and Fleabag – The Complicated World of Sisterly Love

‘Complicated’ is a word rarely used to describe female TV characters, especially in the world of comedies. It’s a fact Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Aisling Bea are obviously all too aware of, their shows deliberately rejecting the age-old stereotypes normally associated with women in favour of flawed, but ultimately very relatable, female characters. In other words: real women. Yet one of the main reasons Fleabag (2016–2019) and This Way Up (2019–2021) are so innovative is that they dare to put sisterly relationships at the front and centre of everything else going on in the story, even if those relationships play out in very different ways throughout both shows.

Fleabag (2016–2019)
Fleabag (2016–2019)

(NOTE: Lots of spoilers ahead for Fleabag and Series 1 of This Way Up!).

Whether it’s Fleabag (Waller-Bridge) and Claire (Sian Clifford) arguing before a feminist lecture, or Shona (Sharon Horgan) picking up an ungrateful Aine (Aisling Bea) after a stint in rehab, our introductions to these characters are immediately memorable, Waller-Bridge and Bea already having fun with their dysfunctional sisterly dynamics. These introductions also make something abundantly clear: these sisters have almost nothing in common with each other. From the way they dress, to their jobs, to their personalities, they are depicted as complete polar opposites, a fact that Fleabag and Aine seem all too aware of. They’re struggling to make ends meet and failing at life in general, but Claire and Shona have it all – high-powered careers, money, and loving partners. And yet Waller-Bridge and Bea approach the sisters’ contrasting lives in wildly different ways in their narratives, Waller-Bridge showing how distant Fleabag and Claire are because of their clashing personalities, while Bea portrays Aine and Shona as quite close. Indeed, in This Way Up, their lack of similarities doesn’t affect their ability to spend time together and have a laugh, even if the jokes they make are often at each other’s expense. Fleabag and Claire might share a few tender moments here and there (awkward hugs and general words of advice), but they’re certainly going to have to work at their relationship if they ever want to overcome their differences.

Although the closeness Aine and Shona have seems to represent the ideal sisterly relationship, Bea actually shows how it can occasionally be a hindrance for both of them. Aine constantly relies on Shona for support and to combat her intense feelings of loneliness, her dependence so much that at one point it causes her to have a panic attack when Shona leaves her for the evening. In fact, whenever Shona isn’t around, Aine tends to act rashly, whether that’s by sleeping with her ex or simply going for a walk around the park at night. When we learn that Aine was close to their father who’s passed away, Aine’s mental health issues and feelings of isolation become easier to understand, as does her reliance on her sister to make them go away. And of course, Shona always comes running when Aine asks her to (or whenever she checks her phone locator app and it tells her Aine isn’t where she said she’d be). Her support is touching, but even in episode one when Shona rushes back from an important work event to find Aine, we know something’s got to give between them. Indeed, towards the end of the first series, they’re further apart than they’ve ever been, Shona realising how stifled she is by Aine’s constant need for reassurance, while Aine’s loneliness comes back to haunt her. Without the balance that their relationship so desperately needs, both sisters find themselves at a loss, and unsure if they can ever move past their problems with each other.

Aisling Bea as Aine in This Way Up (2019–2021)
Aisling Bea as Aine in This Way Up (2019–2021)

Grief might be the only thing Fleabag and Claire can actually relate to in their relationship, the pair still reeling from their mother’s death 3 years prior, yet able to reminisce together about happier times with her. However, it’s the recent death of Fleabag’s best friend Boo (Jenny Rainsford) that is affecting her the most, the circumstances of which are gradually revealed to us via flashbacks throughout the first series. Boo’s sudden departure has left Fleabag alone in more ways than one. No business partner to run the failing café with her. No-one to share a late night glass of red wine with. No-one to guide her when she’s feeling lost. While Claire might not be a suitable replacement for all of that, she’s willing to help her sister in other ways, whether it’s simply asking Fleabag if she’s ok, or offering her the money she needs to save the café.

It’s this grand gesture that also marks the pair finally becoming closer – a moment that is sadly not to last thanks to Claire’s husband, Martin (Brett Gelman). When Fleabag confesses that Martin tried to kiss her, Claire is hurt, but immediately believes her sister, even telling her she’s going to leave him and take the work promotion in Finland that she’s been offered. Yet the next time they meet, Claire is back with Martin and distant with her again, Martin having manipulated Claire into believing the kiss was all Fleabag’s doing. That Fleabag had an affair with Boo’s boyfriend (the act that lead to her suicide) is the very reason Martin’s lie is all too easy to believe, and which makes it impossible for Claire to fully trust her sister. After all, if she’s done it before, who’s to say she won’t do it again? After Martin’s meddling and a final stand against her domineering stepmother (the brilliant Olivia Colman), at the end of series one Fleabag is a broken woman without the only other connection in her life that has been keeping her sane. Even the fourth wall has turned against her, Fleabag shying away from our judgemental gaze after we find out the truth about her and Boo.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Fleabag
Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Fleabag

While the conflict between Aine and Shona might not be as extreme as the problem facing Fleabag and Claire, they both seem like points of no return for the sisters. However, Waller-Bridge and Bea actually use these incidents to help them move past other issues in their relationships – a process that ultimately helps them reconnect on a deeper level. In This Way Up, Aine and Shona argue about their dysfunctional relationship in the last episode of the first series, both suddenly revealing their deep-rooted issues with each other. But later at Shona’s work event, the pair are finally able to talk candidly about Aine’s suicide attempt, Shona revealing she constantly worries about her, and Aine reassuring her she’ll never do it again. It’s the most moving scene of the whole series, and a beautifully realistic portrayal of sisterly love.

It takes a lot more than an explosive argument to reconnect Fleabag and Claire though, their relationship (and Claire’s trust) gradually building again throughout the wonderful second series. When Fleabag discovers Claire has had a miscarriage during their father (Bill Paterson) and stepmother’s celebratory meal, Fleabag covers for Claire by drawing all the attention to herself, claiming the miscarriage was actually hers. After a callous response from Martin (“like a goldfish out the bowl”) and a few flying punches, Fleabag suddenly finds Claire waiting for her with a taxi at the end of the episode. Her lie has shown Claire how much Fleabag still cares for her, even after a year without contact. Although they struggle to maintain this closeness throughout series two, once again Fleabag helps her in the last episode by making Claire understand that she needs to stop putting others before herself. Her own happiness is far more important than that. Rather than dismissing her sister’s advice, Claire finally realises she needs to be more like Fleabag – that occasionally you need to be selfish in order to get what you truly deserve. With her sister’s encouraging words, Claire builds up the strength to leave Martin and run to the airport to be reunited with the man (Christian Hillborg) she really loves. It’s a cliché act, but Claire reveals that the only other person she’d do that for is Fleabag – a touching moment that shows all is finally forgiven between them.

Sisterly love... Claire (Sian Clifford) and Fleabag are reunited
Sisterly love… Claire (Sian Clifford) and Fleabag are reunited

Fleabag and Claire might never be as close as Aine and Shona are. But in both shows, these sisterly relationships are the crux of the larger stories at play, their love and unwavering support for each other portrayed as far more important than their relationships with any of the male characters – a refreshing approach that makes these shows truly special. While the bickering, joking, and clothes borrowing certainly captures the nuances and realism of being a sister, it’s those poignant moments that stick with you long after watching, Waller-Bridge and Bea perfectly highlighting that precarious yet unbreakable bond, and how much you’d risk for it. And as a sister myself, that’s what makes Fleabag and This Way Up two of the most vital, exciting female-driven shows of recent years, especially when it’s obvious their creators comprehend this connection so well. After all, there are few who can better understand the love between sisters, than sisters themselves.

(Originally posted on The Digital Fix: https://www.thedigitalfix.com/television/feature/the-complicated-world-of-sisterly-love/)

Doctor Who – Leave your misogyny at the (Tardis) door

The world of Doctor Who is a place I haven’t visited since the beginning of Matt Smith’s portrayal of the character – around the same time the storylines started to become repetitive and trite. Even Peter Capaldi’s casting (who I’ve been a fan of since The Thick of It) couldn’t entice me back to a show that continued to be increasingly tired, despite a select number of later episodes that seemed to be getting things back on track. Yet now, with the announcement of the casting of the 13th Doctor, a monumental change is on the horizon which is well worth celebrating, whether everyone wants it or not.

The portrayal of gender roles onscreen is something that has always been at the back of my mind, ever since my time at University. It was there that three very happy years of Film Studies opened up my eyes to all sorts of representation issues, both on film and TV. However the results that I was presented with in relation to women onscreen were shocking and, as a woman myself, almost depressing. Continuously objectified, often portrayed via damaging, badly written stereotypes, rarely forwarding the narrative in any significant way (other than when they die, which even now is used as a common plot point), and regularly featured as secondary, nearly mute characters, or not at all. Even when films and TV shows do try and break this mould, it’s disheartening how these are almost always attacked by criticism that male-led productions are rarely faced with (specifically Bridesmaids and the first season of Girls, which were both unfairly targeted for their portrayal of men. Because keeping male characters out of the picture is paramount to a crime).

Jodie Whittaker will be playing the 13th Doctor

It is for all these reasons that I really do applaud the decision to hire a female actor to play one of the most iconic characters on British TV. No longer will a woman simply be the Doctor’s companion, they’ll now be calling the shots and saving the world, one time travel trip at a time. It is something that not only opens up the show to a whole realm of hitherto unexplored possibilities, it also opens up the discussion of positive female representation onscreen itself. Yes, we’ve had plenty of leading female characters in Sci-fi and Fantasy shows before (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X-Files, Orphan Black, Jessica Jones and many more). But there are no such long-running TV productions (to my knowledge) with a lead consistently portrayed by a male actor, and for that ‘norm’ to then suddenly be challenged. That change itself is evidence of the BBC and new showrunner Chris Chibnall actively deciding to make a positive step towards the future and address the gender imbalance onscreen, one which if successful, could well mean other productions following its lead, both original and otherwise.

With all this in mind though, I do recognise and understand those with worries about the future of Doctor Who. I should add here: those with legitimate worries. Those making unfair, misogynistic comments can (and will) happily be left behind by the show – it will flourish a lot better without ‘fans’ such as that (and judging by some of the harsher, sickening responses, this is a change that needed to happen, and one that should even have taken place sooner). No, the fans I understand are those who wanted a man to be chosen again for the role – those ones looking forward to seeing who would be picked next, and hoping for the series to stay as it was. Indeed, my wish list actually had three male names (Tim Roth, David Thewlis and Paddy Considine) and only two female actors (Zawe Ashton and Natalia Tena) on it. A man would have been a perfectly valid choice for the 13th Doctor, albeit a frustrating one for those celebrating last week’s news of Jodie Whittaker’s casting. However I believe these fans will be more that won over by the interesting road the series will now be taking – one which will certainly shake up a show that was rapidly running out of steam.

Similarly, I also understand and sympathise with those annoyed that a WOC hasn’t been chosen to play the Doctor. A decision such as this would have been immensely positive for representation of race onscreen (another current sorry state of affairs), as well as gender. The companion’s race has been challenged before, and recently their sexuality too, so why not the Doctor’s? While it can only be speculated as to why the BBC didn’t push the envelope even further, I believe they may have feared being labelled as ‘politically correct’, a description that has been unfairly attached to them even after Whittaker’s casting. The only minor positive that could potentially come from all this in relation to race, is that the success of an unconventional choice for the 13th Doctor will hopefully open up many more doors of diversity further down the line.

Doctor Who

There are plenty of others happy with the decision though, recognising this as a great time for the series and for female roles. However even some looking forward to what the show now holds are concerned as to whether it may simply be used as a gimmick to draw back viewers long since bored with it. That the writing and plots will remain as dreary as they previously have been. It is true that many of the naysayers will certainly be watching and waiting for them to slip up – a justification of the gender ‘issue’ that they are against already. Obviously whether it is a triumph is something that will only come to light next year, when we see exactly what Chibnall and the team of writers, directors, etc. have created for our eager eyes. Yet with a refreshing vision and a fantastic force in Whittaker at the helm (if you’ve not seen her in Rachel Tunnard’s excellent film Adult Life Skills, I highly recommend you do) I really am hopeful for the future of the Doctor and excited to see what comes next.

The one positive thing that few can (or shouldn’t) argue against, is what this casting means for young viewers everywhere. After all, although there is a huge adult audience for the show (myself included), at its heart Doctor Who’s core viewers are those younger few – those it has the most influence on. The Doctor has always been about treating everyone with kindness and helping others different to you. That although the world isn’t a fair place, you should always respect it as such. And now, young girls and boys can see how a strong female presence can promote this too. That they are just as capable of saving the Universe. I didn’t watch Doctor Who back in the 90s when I was young, but if I was a child now I can guarantee that I would have been obsessed with it. And my little self, who was so in love with Ghostbusters and X-Men back in the day, would have been over the moon at having someone just like me finally be the front and centre of such a big TV show. So forgive me if I actually shed a tear at the casting news – because THIS is what it is all about.

Boardwalk Empire, Season 5 – A final farewell to Nucky and Co.

I usually post trailers and news for films on here, but I thought I’d make an exception for the recent trailer for the new season of Boardwalk Empire (2010 – 2014). Partly because I am a massive fan of the show, partly because it is easily one of the best things on TV at the moment. Which is a shame when season 5 is to be its last (and its shortest at only 8 episodes).

This time the action has moved forward to 1931, meaning a big change of pace: this was when the Great Depression had hit and hit hard, and there was also an end in sight for Prohibition. This means previous big players being pushed off their pedestals and even bigger, more opportunistic ones, stepping up, mainly Charlie ‘Lucky’ Luciano (Vincent Piazza), as you can see from the trailer. It also means that this season is likely to be even more explosive than the ones before…which is saying something when each previous season has been fraught with increasing amounts of tension, excitement and more and more main character deaths.

Boardwalk Empire, Season 5 – the final curtain call for Nucky and Co.

It’ll be interesting to see how writer and creator Terence Winter and the programme’s usual writers and directors handle this new era and just where they are going to be taking these brilliant characters, as well as how they will be drawing it to a close (the tagline “No one goes quietly” certainly does add an ominous tone to this final season). So while it’ll be sad to see this excellent show go, I’m still looking forward to the final curtain call with Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and other fabulous characters such as Nelson Van Alden/George Mueller (Michael Shannon), Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham), Chalky White (Michael K. Williams), Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol), Al Capone (Stephen Graham) and Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef) – who will probably have the biggest part to play out of them all (I’m actually hoping there might be a chance of a spin-off or mini-series about Luciano and Lansky, seeing as how they’ve only just begun to forge their Empire…fingers crossed).

Catch Boardwalk Empire while you still can with the new season starting in the US on September 7th 2014 and in the UK on September 13th 2014. If you’ve never seen it before though, catch up on the previous 4 seasons and see just why it is one of the best shows on TV.

Glory Daze

Now that I’ve started talking about TV shows let’s carry on and talk about one that’s actually pretty good: Glory Daze.

At first it seemed to be a TV version of American Pie set on Campus in a University, or a TV version of Old School but with younger people and set in the 80s – at least that’s what I gathered from the adverts. So I wasn’t expecting much apart from the odd penis joke. But I was surprised by how funny it actually is and how much it’s NOT like this AT ALL (in fact there’s no swearing or anything in it…weird).

There are occasionally a few era based jokes unfortunately though – “they’re talking about this new thing called e-mails which they think will never catch on! LOLZ!” LAZY JOKES (pretty much all the jokes in The Wedding Singer and probably like the jokes in Hot Tub Time Machine – except I can’t rent it coz LoveFilm don’t stock it for some reason and I’m not buying it for what I know will be a few mediocre laughs at best). Anyway I digress…(these jokes seemed to calm down as well after a while too: no mention of VCRs, Betamax and computers yet…although a couple of weeks ago they talked about the amount of blades in razors and how there’s now three blades and when will it end? LOLZ).

The whole 80s thing is actually weird – you hardly notice it apart from the soundtrack (which is ACES) or when you notice someone’s clothes – although again this isn’t that obvious seeing as how lots of styles from around then have come back into fashion (although who let ruffles back in?). So I’m not entirely sure why it has been set in the 80s: a gimmick to make it seem new? (as there has previously been a TV show EXACTLY LIKE THIS called Undeclared which was created by Judd Apatow and had Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel and Jason Segel in it. Hmm – suspicious?).

The one reason it works though, as with any good TV show, is when you start to get to know the characters and care about what happens to them. The four main guys who are new to the fraternity are good, the standout funny one being Eli (played by Matt Bush who was Frigo in Adventureland if you were wondering).

However the three very, very funniest characters for me are definitely: Mike Reno played by Callard Harris (and who hasn’t been in many other things, but like me I’m sure you’re hoping that he will be in the future…YUM – him on the far right if you’re wondering), the teacher Professor Haines (played by Tim Meadows and who was the headteacher in Mean Girls and who is so droll it hurts) and the AMAZING 32 year old stoner guy who still lives in the frat house called Stankowski (played by Chris D’Elia and who will literally have you dying with laughter every time he’s onscreen). And yes – I’m that obsessed with this show now that I didn’t have to IMDB any of that info or anything…I LOVE IT THAT MUCH.

Unfortunately though, there are now only two episodes left of Glory Daze. And guess what? – there isn’t going to be another series. Thanks. Let’s file that away with Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared, Firefly and all the others I loved. I know it wasn’t exactly a groundbreaking show and it’s been done before…but could you not have given it a chance? Tried something (sort of) new for a change? No? Oh, ok – guess I’ll just have to enjoy it while I still can. Rant over.

Campus shampus

It’s just occurred to me that I mentioned at the start of this blog that I would be reviewing both film and TV – but that I haven’t actually written any TV reviews yet. So let’s remedy that…

Campus is a new comedy series on channel 4 that is now 3 episodes in…I have actually been purposely withholding doing any sort of review on it because I couldn’t really judge it on the pilot episode alone – I’d already seen it and it was exactly the same, no tweaks or anything from what I can remember. So I wanted to wait until I had seen a few of the new episodes before I judged it.

And now I’ve seen a couple more episodes, my general thought is: ‘Hmmmm…’ That’s pretty much it. Campus is enjoyable enough, but if you’ve seen Green Wing before (which the makers of Campus did before this – and which is a million miles more funny), then it’s nothing new. You can even match up the similar characters from both programmes: there’s the ditzy nervous woman, the man who thinks he’s God’s gift to women, the geeky nervous guy, the dumb pretty woman.

Most annoyingly of all they’ve tried to completely replicate Sue White from Green Wing, played by the amazing Michelle Gomez. Except in Campus they’ve changed it to a man in the hopes that you won’t notice. This is the head of the campus, Jonty de Wolfe, played by the excellent Andy Nyman. And for this reason it’s almost forgivable because Nyman is brilliantly funny. But when he starts to go a little OTT, and also when the sketches turn into something wonderfully bizarre, the comparisons between this and Green Wing are far too obvious.

And to be honest, with the exception of a few gems, it’s just not really that funny.

And also, lets face it, Campus was never going to beat this: