Binge-r #140: What/If + Fleabag
Streaming Service: Netflix
Availability: All 10 episodes now streaming
Kudos to this tawdry Netflix series about moral temptation and responsibility: it opens with a menacing monologue – delivered by Renee Zellweger’s Anne Montgomery – where a wealthy San Francisco venture capitalist declares you must, “do away with the shackles designed by society to limit us”, and carries on with a heavy hand from there. As soon as she reappears, the camera panning up her legs like a pin-up, Anne is offering to save Lisa Donovan (Jane Levy) and her leukaemia research start-up from bankruptcy, in exchange for equity, more monologues, and a night with Lisa’s paramedic husband, Sean (Blake Jenner), that the couple can never discuss. After they reluctantly accept, he comes home with bloody knuckles and takes a long shower – this show may leave you in a similar way.
Creator Mike Kelley’s previous success was the soapie thriller Revenge, but What/If is more earnest and disjointed. Lisa and Sean’s circle of family and friends makes for three (diverse) relationships that get compromised by desire and infidelity, but the show’s quandaries are neither exacting nor truly engaging. As a modern day Mephistopheles, Zellweger is so miscast that her performance is weirdly intriguing – an actor who specialises in engagement and vulnerability, she leans heavily into the innuendo-laden line readings. Occasionally there’s a smart tell on Lisa’s sacrifice of Sean, but mostly there’s cheap melodrama. The writing has the good sense to acknowledge the debt to 1993’s Indecent Proposal, but the direction in the first two episodes from Australian filmmaker Phillip Noyce (Dead Calm, Salt), with its wonky angles and neo-noir flashbacks, is surprisingly clichéd. It’s a fine line between good trash and bad trash, but somehow this misses by a wide mark.
Streaming Service: Amazon Prime Video
Availability: All six episodes now streaming
In a speech about menopause, delivered during the second season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s remarkable comedy about one woman’s furious and beguiling imperfection, guest star Kristin Scott Thomas says, “it’s horrendous, then it’s magnificent.” The same could be said of Fleabag itself, although the gap between the two opposite states is so infinitesimal that it doesn’t register. Moment to moment anything feels possible on the scalpel-sharp black comedy, which makes for both shockingly funny developments and uncompromised acceptance, as Waller-Bridge’s nicknamed lead character navigates her family and personal relationships amidst a heightened tone that somehow also manages to be tenderly honest.
The Amazon show’s first season had Fleabag spiralling downwards with guilt over the loss of her best friend, but the new season smartly reverses the stakes. It is Fleabag – moments of larceny and a solid right hook aside – trying to help her uptight sister Claire (a terrifically good Sian Clifford) make sense of where she’s at, while instead of falling back on sex as an emotional crutch she’s caught up with a “cool, swear-y priest” (Andrew Scott). The show hits recognisable story moments, but they’re rendered with such social savagery and wicked pleasure, exemplified by Waller-Bridge’s running commentary to the camera, that Fleabag feels close to unique. It’s an acrid, audacious masterpiece.
NEWLY ADDED MOVIES
New on Netflix: Told with understated intimacy and finely matched lead performances from Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton, Loving (2016, 123 minutes) is the story of the interracial marriage in 1950s America that helped legally end segregation; more a study of a flawed genius than a depiction of a gay man, The Imitation Game (2014, 113 minutes) makes great use of Benedict Cumberbatch’s painful superiority in a World War II codebreaking drama.
New on Stan: An unabashed weepie that doesn’t take enough risks, Me Before You (2016, 111 minutes) stars Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) as the free spirit who revives Sam Claflin’s paralysed, castle-residing, aristocrat; Christopher Robin (2018, 100 minutes) stars Ewan McGregor as the gentle boy turned stressed adult revisited by Winnie the Pooh and friends – the digital animation is first-rate, the emotional endeavour less so.
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