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There’s No ‘Fleabag’ Without Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s ‘Crashing’

Before she became a household name with the Amazon series, Waller-Bridge honed her twisted brand of romantic comedy on the underappreciated ‘Crashing’

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One hundred years ago this week, the company that would become known as the British Broadcasting Corporation was founded in London. Transmitting news and entertainment across radio and television, the BBC would go on to have a far-reaching impact on not only the United Kingdom, but also audiences worldwide. To mark the anniversary, The Ringer is celebrating one of the BBC’s chief exports to the United States: British TV. From Masterpiece Theatre to Love Island, join us as we look back on some of the iconic shows that have crossed the pond in the past century.

In the opening scene of Crashing, a woman named Lulu, played by creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge, happily strums a ukulele. She’s on a bus to London, where she’s set to surprise her best friend and longtime crush, Anthony (Damien Molony), when the woman next to her begs her to please cut it out. The scene hits every beat of what we’ve come to know as the Waller-Bridge playbook: All the traits of a manic pixie dream girl, but twisted and stripped away from the mystique and glamor that other creators have used to attract us to these women. You could argue that this characterization was perfected in Fleabag, Waller-Bridge’s much more well-known series that premiered just seven months after Crashing aired on Channel 4 in the U.K. It would be a mistake, though, for Crashing to live as just some footnote in the history of a woman who’s since become a household name. Crashing deserves to be studied on its own. In just six short episodes, which were made available on Netflix in 2016, Waller-Bridge not only introduced us to the ticks and fascinations that would define her work to come—she created a veritable masterclass in the art of the will-they/won’t-they.

Vulture’s Jackson McHenry recently called the romantic comedy “an empty vessel of a genre.” It’s a refrain that’s followed the form for decades, and I get it: Any pile of tropes repeated without attention and care can get a little tired. The same can be said, though, for any action movie, fantasy epic, or pretentious piece of Oscar bait. The issue’s never been genre; it’s been what you do with it. Crashing proves that.

The series, set around a group of “property guardians” living in an abandoned hospital, combines the rom-com with the ensemble friend group sitcom just as New Girl, Living Single, and countless others have before her. Waller-Bridge tap-dances through practically every cliché available—but along the way, she bends and warps them. Every trope comes with a sharp right hook. She darkens some—as in the uneasy love triangle between Lulu, Anthony, and his fiancé Kate (Louise Ford), or the kitschy May-December cat-and-mouse between French artist Melody (Julie Dray) and maudlin, middle-aged divorcé Colin (Adrian Scarborough). Waller-Bridge also brightens others, like with the tender, rollicking slow burn of playboy Sam (an incandescent Jonathan Bailey), who identifies as straight at the top of the series, and his new shy friend Fred (Amit Shah).

In Fleabag, Waller-Bridge played the titular character, a hypersexual woman shattered by her role in the death of her best friend. The first season was based heavily on Waller-Bridge’s one-woman play of the same name: In the series, she employs theatrical devices, breaking the fourth wall to deliver screeds on one-night stands and tampon sizes, all while juggling bravado with gut-wrenching trauma. It succeeded because its creator and star was unflinching—unafraid to depict where sexual fixation, broad humor, and psychological horror overlap. Waller-Bridge’s work is often fascinated with the deep-down ways a person can be broken. Fleabag felt up-close and personal, and that resonated with viewers. Its first season hit big, raking in accolades and bringing its creator and star an international audience.

If the first season was successful, the second launched Waller-Bridge into the stratosphere. It won Emmys and secured her status as a household name. It got her a $18.5 million-a-year deal with Amazon. Airing in spring 2019, Waller-Bridge opened the sophomore effort on the image of Fleabag with blood pouring down her face, delivering the immortal words: “This is a love story.” She had, with Crashing, already practiced scrambling the bromides of romantic comedy. Here, she showed off a matured skill set, exploring character archetypes she’d long been intrigued by. It was another will-they/won’t-they slow burn between two people (Fleabag and a hot, alcoholic priest played by Andrew Scott) who, as in Crashing, try really hard to push past the pull of their base instincts. They know giving in could burn their lives to the ground. The Guardian’s Hannah Jane Parkinson called the season “the most electrifying, devastating TV in years.”

The groundwork for it all, though, was laid in an abandoned hospital. Where Fleabag centered on one beguilingly damaged character, Crashing broadened the scope to seven. Where Fleabag told one torturous, titillating love story, Crashing told at least four. Quantity doesn’t denote quality, but it’s worth noting that Crashing was, in many ways, a playground for the many fascinations Waller-Bridge would go on to exhibit in the three shows she’s executive-produced since: Fleabag, Killing Eve, and Run. Crashing lasted only one season—six 24-minute episodes—but even years later, the tension of the show’s personalities colliding spark and sting so good.

In the Crashing pilot, Lulu gets off the bus, reunites with best friend Anthony, and meets his fiancé Kate—a type-A prude, so awkward in the presence of taller, cooler, ukulele-toting Lulu that she overshoots a bit and jokingly declares she doesn’t even love Anthony. It’s the first in a barrage of enormously painful scenes—the kind that make those prone to secondhand embarrassment want to crawl behind the couch until it’s over. You shouldn’t, though. In Crashing, Waller-Bridge plays with her audience, daring you not to look away.

Take a few scenes later, for example: As Anthony and Lulu catch up, she feigns sudden pain. “I think my tampon just came out a bit.” Anthony, uncomfortable, gets up as if to help—but Lulu only recoils and laughs, prodding him for the very same action she’d pushed him toward. Lulu and Anthony repeat versions of that game for the duration of the episode; it’s their tradition. One pushes the other toward an action they secretly, desperately want—an intimate act, an emotional revelation—but before it can get too real, they do an about-face, mocking each other for thinking they could have possibly been sincere. In one scene, Lulu and Anthony go back and forth on her jokes about having an old crush on him, and what they really mean:

Anthony: Come on. We’ve never been so sober in our lives. I’m trying to be an adult now, OK? I actually want to know how you feel about me. I don’t care about the shitstorm it could cause. I don’t care about Kate, I mean, she’s probably a lesbian anyway. I just need you to admit that you don’t just flirt with me for kicks. OK? Just so I know that I’m not crazy.

Lulu: [Laughing.] “Fuck off. You’re making me nervous.

Anthony: Sit down. [She does.] “Why do you do it? Is it power?

Lulu: Yeah.

Anthony: But you’d never actually kiss me?

Lulu: [Cheeky.] I’ve been trying since we were 14, baby.

Anthony: Bullshit. Kiss me, then.

Lulu: Tease!

Anthony: Coming from you.

Lulu: You kiss me.

Anthony: You kiss me.

Lulu: You kiss me.

Anthony: You kiss me. [She kisses him.] Lu, you’re kissing me.

Lulu: I know.

Anthony: WHOA, WHOA, WHOA.

Anthony leaps away, accusing Lulu of going too far with their inside jokes. Lulu’s visibly crushed. Seeing this, Anthony’s face falls. He gets out a half-sentence about how he’s been in love with her for years—but she shuts him down with a panicked laugh. She covers her real devastation, and claims she was just trying to one-up him. These two are trapped in a harmful cycle, lacking the courage to say what they really feel. They drift apart, and for much of the rest of the season they merely pretend to be friends, all while Anthony’s still engaged to someone else.

Crashing is a game of chicken. Lulu is constantly torn between the swagger she projects as a protective shield, and the real, abiding love she feels for her best friend. It’s a motif we’ve seen a thousand times before, and one that could have been empty this time had Waller-Bridge not filled it with the push-pull dynamic that makes it electric—as well as dark, silly, and sad.

It’s not even the most warped love story of the bunch. That title belongs to Melody, the bold French artist, and Colin, a man going through a heartbreaking divorce. Melody develops a deep, sexual fascination with Colin early on, and they tango through the series as muse and artist, friends, and twisted potential lovers. Their story is one of two romances in the series that involves a woman turned on by the tears of a man.

The true star of Crashing’s various will-they/won’t-they situations, though, shows off a more tender side of Waller-Bridge’s sensibilities. Bailey’s Sam is a blond-tipped real estate agent who bounces around the hospital trying to use his boundless charisma to fuck any woman he sees. He’s also just recently lost his father. We see only the smallest glimpses into how this death has torn him up inside (sound familiar?), but it’s more than enough. In the pilot, Sam is paired in a birthday treasure hunt with gangly, sweet Fred. Sam is brash and bullying at first, but by the end of the episode they’re inseparable. Theirs is a story of fast-friend making, coupled with an intense sexual tension Sam refuses to admit to.

Though it may sound similar on the surface to Lulu and Anthony (or Nick and Jess in New Girl) the relationship feels entirely its own. Fred and Sam are opposites. They balance each other perfectly: cocky bluster meets bashful, nerdy delight. Bailey’s frenetic energy propels Crashing forward, yet the way he looks at Fred grounds it. Every romance needs that fluffy feeling of butterflies in the stomach somewhere. In Crashing, Fred and Sam supply it. Bi panic starts to bubble up in Sam as he spends more time with Fred. These feelings raise the stakes of the entire series, underlining what’s happening with Lulu, Anthony, and Kate—and even Melody and Colin. These feelings are real and undeniable, his panicked, lovelorn gaze suggests to the audience, which means I am genuinely fucked.

Bailey didn’t become a romantic lead because of Bridgerton; he had been one all along. Waller-Bridge didn’t become a master of the dark romantic pull with Killing Eve, or with Fleabag before it—Crashing is a monument to that. Waller-Bridge excels at stories that embody how absolutely terrifying it is to fall in love. The subject of your ill-advised attraction may be the MI5 agent hunting you (Killing Eve), your best friend’s boyfriend (Fleabag Season 1), or a reformed bad-boy priest who can never really be yours (Fleabag Season 2). It may be your ex, even though you’re a married woman who just ran out on her husband and kids (Run, executive produced by Waller-Bridge with creator Vicky Jones). In other cases attractions may steer toward a suicidal divorced man (Crashing), your engaged childhood best friend (Crashing), or the lovely man you met who just started dating someone else, all the while thinking you’re not attracted to men at all (Crashing).

Waller-Bridge’s work thrills in exploring the torture of being alive and having feelings. Her work encapsulates what a terrible thing that experience can be, the ways it can twist your gut and make you feel sick. But there’s a hope inherent in her work: Season 2 of Fleabag succeeds because it takes a woman from rock bottom all the way up to the absolute transcendence that comes with winning that game of chicken and being able to walk away knowing she’s the better for it, scars and all. I won’t spoil the ending of Crashing, but I will say this: This show is spiky and challenging and more fucked up than many of its direct forebears. It’s also surprisingly soft at its center. As Waller-Bridge’s work often proves, sometimes you have to poke at the bruises—to acknowledge they’re there—before you can move forward.

Waller-Bridge is still early in her career. She’s been tied up in big franchise gigs like James Bond, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones. That’s certainly her right. Crashing, though, lives as a testament to the small and intimate stories she’s capable of making feel epic. It’s a sign of great talent to make old tropes feel new. Crashing was just the beginning, but it remains, as always, worth returning to.

Alanna Bennett is a screenwriter and culture writer who’s written for Roswell, New Mexico and the upcoming XO, Kitty. Her work can also be seen in The New York Times, BuzzFeed News, Teen Vogue, Vulture, Eater, and many more. Follow her on Twitter at @AlannaBennett.