Editor’s Note: Kate Maltby is a broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics, and a theater critic for The Guardian. She is also completing a doctorate in Renaissance literature. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Buckle up, American viewers. The hype has already started for the second season of “Killing Eve,” the caustic comic-thriller created by British comedian Phoebe Waller-Bridge, which premieres April 7 on both sides of the Atlantic.
But if you’ve been bitten by the Waller-Bridge bug, you should have also discovered the cult British show “Fleabag,” which premiered its second season in the UK this Monday and launches in the United States on Amazon Prime March 17.
In the TV series, we observe the mortifying life of a self-destructive 30-something incapable of adult self-reliance – the title is a nickname which hints at the depths of her self-loathing. But unlike most millennial comedies, we’re never asked to excuse away our anti-heroine’s irresponsibility. Fleabag’s selfishness causes real pain – to her lovers, to her widowed father and eventually (season one spoiler!) to the best friend she turns out to have driven toward suicide.
Imagine “Girls,” but with ten times the self-knowledge and no pretense anyone would actually be friends with the Lena Dunham character. Nearly a decade on from the start of “Girls,” which Dunham helmed, a new generation of millennial showrunners are telling their own stories, but those stories have only gotten more nihilistic.
Eye-rolling about millennial fecklessness is a stock-in-trade of press and media. Yet the success of “Fleabag” emerges just as transatlantic culture seems to be casting a sympathetic eye on the millennial generation for the first time. This weekend, a widely-read New York Times Style feature looked into the phenomenon of millennials receiving parental financial support even into their mid-30s. It’s an easy subject to mock, yet writer Hannah Seligson managed to frame with empathy the multiple reasons why baby boomer parents still hold most of society’s capital; and why so many of them feel the need to transfer that wealth in time for their grandchildren to be raised securely. Although yes, most of them are white, US-born families privileging their children accordingly.
Understandably, there was a bit more online mockery for a piece at New York Magazine’s The Cut profiling a 34 year old woman who receives $20,000 a year from her mother to spend on clothes. But even in that piece, we’re given a glimpse of the self-doubt that can ensue when this kind of parental patronage functions as a form of parental control. “It was always important to my mom that we look our best,” writes the anonymous millennial. A worthy mantra, but not when it enables passive-aggressive gifts of expensive anti-aging cream.
There’s one obvious reason why we’re beginning to hear the millennials’ side of the story. Millennials are getting older – and a critical mass of millennials are reaching positions of influence in the workplace, including in the media and entertainment industries which write our culture’s stories. Waller-Bridge is 33, and over the last few years has become one of the most powerful people in British TV. In “Fleabag,” she even got to cast “the” most powerful person, recent Oscar-winner Olivia Colman, in a supporting role.
And it turns out that “Fleabag” is a defense of the millennial generation, after all. Waller-Bridge’s character is selfish as anything, but her howl of rage is an indictment of the boomer class who’ve raised her without the equipment to cope in the adult world. In an allegory of boomer-economics, her father has checked out of parenting his motherless daughters, in order to enjoy life with his sex-obsessed, saccharine new fiancée, played by Colman.
He occasionally spends money on his daughter, but only because he is compensating for investing emotionally. In the opening scene of the latest series, Fleabag is delighted to be handed a slim envelope as a birthday present. Turns out, it’s a voucher for a single session of counseling. Thanks to his uselessness, and like an increasing number of millennials, she needs a lot more than just the one session.
Even sexual liberation, won by a previous generation, is a baby-boomer Trojan horse. Colman’s character, at her most villainous, trills enthusiastically about destroying the old world’s sexual hang-ups (notably, when she’s forcing Fleabag to stare at a homemade sculpture of her father’s penis.) In turn, our anti-heroine narrates her own way through a series of soul-destroying superficial liaisons, big on comedy body parts, short on love. It’s here, in a series of mutually-deceptive couplings, that comedy turns to tragedy most quickly. Perhaps the baby boomers taught us all the wrong things about relationships?
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It’s 30 years this year since Billy Joel sang “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” the baby boomer anthem for a generation who felt themselves born into a world their parents had irredeemably broken. Now, the boomer’s children are flinging the same complaint back at the parents.
Even Villanelle, the childlike assassin at the center of “Killing Eve,” is a millennial acting out against a world whose problems started long before she arrived. Eventually, she even lashes out at her baby boomer paymasters. Millennials, in the Waller-Bridge universe, may be selfish and erratic. But their parents are worse – even when they’re paying the rent.