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TV/Film Culture cheat sheet: “Fleabag” for charity, Rina Sawayama, and more

Apr. 27, 2020
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Watch: National Theatre Live: Fleabag (2019, dir. Vicky Jones)

My habit of constantly bringing up the critically-acclaimed, sharply-written TV series Fleabag in conversations that don’t concern it is a testament to just how unmissable it is. It’s so good that after I watched its two short but sickeningly sweet seasons, I decided I could do without my personality and made watching Fleabag my entire identity. I’m always subliminally trying to tell everyone to watch it. (I’m explicitly telling you to watch it right now.) 

The series is a tragicomedy following a crass, dry-witted woman known only as Fleabag as she tries (and fails) to overcome her grief by not dealing with it at all. Its honest, nuanced portrayal of humanity, relationships, trauma, and womanhood garnered two Golden Globes, six Emmys including Outstanding Comedy Series, and universal praise. It’s funny, insightful, and romantic, all in a span of twelve half-hour episodes.

Waller-Bridge based the show’s first season on a one-woman show she wrote and first performed in 2013. Earlier this month, this theater production was released online—on Soho Theatre’s On Demand website for the UK and Ireland and Amazon Prime Video for everywhere else—to raise money for National Emergency Trust, NHS Charities Together, Acting for Others, and the Fleabag Support Fund, which supports theater, comedy, and cabaret freelancers who are unable to work due to the pandemic. 

The show costs $5 to stream, and since its release on April 6th, it’s raised $1 million. While it was only supposed to run until late April, the show’s producers decided to extend its availability on Prime Video until the end of May. 

National Theatre Live: Fleabag is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video until May 31st.

Binge: Feel Good (2020, created by Mae Martin and Joe Hampson)

Mae Martin, starring as a fictionalized version of herself in the semi-autobiographical Feel Good, falls in love too quickly. I found great delight in the fact, partly because love, am I right? But also because it seemed so amateur, and I liked to think I was past that—I laughed at my past mistakes as much as I was laughing at Mae’s present ones. But ten minutes into the pilot I found myself completely enamored by Martin, awestruck at how I could have missed a presence like hers for so long. I was, much like her onscreen character, falling hard and falling fast. 

Feel Good, which Martin co-created and co-wrote with Joe Hampson, is based on her own experiences with addiction and relationships. In it she meets George (Charlotte Ritchie), who has never dated a woman before. After three months of dating perfectly encapsulated in a tightly, lovingly made montage that made me yearn so much I practically had tears in my eyes, they decide to move in together—and then George finds out about Mae’s past with narcotic abuse.

The show’s writing never misses a beat: the pace, dialogue, and character arcs all flow naturally; things fall apart just to fall back together. George hasn’t come to terms with her sexuality, so Mae waters herself down and sets aside her own struggle with gender identity to do what she thinks will make her partner happy. Mae, with a self-proclaimed addictive personality, has had relationships all too similar to the one she has with George, and the latter can’t help but feel like she’s just another one of the former’s hyperfixations. 

It touches on serious, severely underdiscussed themes without being heavy-handed, counterbalanced by its innate wit and charm. Speaking about the show’s take on addiction, Martin said, “I feel like there is part of my personality that I’ve been omitting on stage [as a stand-up comedian] for a long time. I knew I wanted to go into [addiction] in more depth. Then I had a breakup two years ago and I noticed how similar it felt to getting off drugs, so I’ve spent the time since then investigating that.” In fact, she touched upon most of Feel Good’s themes in her stand-up special Dope, in which she talks candidly of addiction in all its forms—drugs and love are of course the primary ones, but also social media, comedy, and Bette Midler. 

Martin’s stand-up is often anecdotal, bolstered by a self-awareness that makes her humor self-deprecating but not always at the expense of her trauma. You’re laughing with her, not at her—you find that you’re rooting for her, actually. This same effervescence colors much of Feel Good. I can’t help but clamor for a second season after gobbling up the first in one sitting. Martin did so much with six 25-minute episodes; imagine what she can do with more.

Feel Good’s first season is now streaming on Netflix.

Listen: SAWAYAMA by Rina Sawayama

Most of the work I do in writing this column is research, but with pop rulebreaker Rina Sawayama, I went down a complete rabbit hole. Her debut album SAWAYAMA, on which every song has more than enough punch to be a single, is something you have to hear to believe. It’s a hodgepodge of sounds we’re all too familiar with, reinvented as something we never hear anywhere else. 

"The influence was chart music, and the charts in the early 2000s were chaotic," Sawayama told BBC. "You had nu-metal one week and bubblegum pop the next, then Pharrell and Timbaland pushing R&B the following week. I love all that music so I wanted to mish-mash it into the record. It's very pure. I wasn't trying to be cool.” Except it’s totally, totally cool. Being influenced by preexisting work, however, doesn’t mean her music is just a decade repackaged in 21st-century sheen; it’s music as she sees it. She loves music (all kinds—SAWAYAMA’s lead single “STFU” matches metal with early 2000s "Miley Cyrus vocals") and it shows. Apparently, it pays off when you’re not pretentious about music! Who knew?

While her artistry is already so palpable you could cut it with a knife, she’s also a lyrical genius. She treated her debut album like a dissertation, saying, ”I like to have a couple of months where I'm researching what I want to write about and filling my head with words and reading books and watching movies and listening to podcasts.” The result is an introspective meditation on identity unseparated from the larger orchestrations of the world: there are songs about, among other things, intergenerational trauma, racial microaggressions, and partying while your mom calls you endlessly.

The obvious standout is her latest single “XS.” She said in a statement that it’s a song about capitalism thriving in a world already destroyed by it. “I wanted to reflect the chaos of this post-truth, climate change-denying world in the metal guitar stabs that flare up like an underlying zit between the 2000s R&B beat that reminds you of a time when everything was alright,” she said in a statement about the song.

Having covered so many themes and taken on so many genres, it feels like a miracle that SAWAYAMA is under an hour long. But with the intricate work that went into each track, this album’s modest runtime will be shamelessly looped; each replay an attempt to uncover new layers. "I don't want to say it helped me find peace, but this record is like my family album," Sawayama shares. "It took decades, but I found my narrative.”

SAWAYAMA is streaming on Spotify here, but if you want to fall into a Rina rabbit hole like I did, might I recommend starting with this i-D video and this video from her own channel about how she wrote the single “STFU.”