The parallels are unavoidable. Both are British dramedies with a female creator/star. Both are about women with significant emotional problems, who tell inappropriate jokes as a defense mechanism when they’re feeling vulnerable (which is always), who make self-destructive choices when it comes to sex, and whose most important relationship is with their more successful and responsible older sister. There’s no Hot Priest here (though co-star Tobias Menzies could certainly play a Hot Priest if asked to), no guinea pigs, and no breaking of the fourth wall, but the superficial resemblance between the two shows is unavoidable. Even if I didn’t want to, it would be hard to write about This Way Up and its auteur, Aisling Bea, without invoking Fleabag and/or Phoebe Waller-Bridge at some point.
Bea plays Aine, a quick-witted Irish woman who lives in England and teaches English to a group of friendly immigrants. (Aine likes to point out that she’s an immigrant herself, but the show is keenly aware that her transition to this country was much easier than it’s been for her students.) Her sister Shona (Sharon Horgan from Catastrophe) is a successful executive in a long-term relationship with Vish (Aasif Mandvi), and works alongside Aine’s toxic ex-boyfriend Freddie (You’re the Worst‘s Chris Geere). The sisters complete each other’s thoughts and function on a shared wavelength that the rest of the world isn’t privy to — in one episode, they hilariously duet on “Zombie” by The Cranberries while Vish and his family watch in polite befuddlement. Their bond is so tight that Aine often feels adrift and afraid whenever Shona’s busy with her own rich and full life.
But Shona has reason to feel afraid when she’s away from Aine, too. As the series opens, she’s checking Aine out of a mental health facility after her little sister recently suffered what’s described as “a teeny little nervous breakdown.”
The six-episode season is less interested in exploring the reasons for Aine’s breakdown than her attempt to rebuild her life after it. She teaches her class, has fumbling encounters with various men, and befriends Richard (Menzies), the coolly repressed father of a French boy, Etienne (Grover), she tutors on the side.
She fires off off-kilter punchlines in every setting, to varying effect, with Richard utterly impervious to the basic concept of humor, let alone Aine’s flavor of it. “I mean, I’m just jokes, Richard,” she cracks, after another gag has flown right over his head. Eventually, we meet Aine and Shona’s mother Eileen (Sorcha Cusack), a former TV personality from back home (her gimmick is that she reported the weather while wearing a new hat every day), and it becomes clear where the siblings’ sense of humor — and Aine’s particular strain of loneliness — came from in the first place.
Bea is never less than charming. And even though this is clearly a vehicle for her, she makes sure to showcase Horgan (a bit softer and saner than she was on Catastrophe, which this show also resembles in its blend of sincerity and awkward laughs), Menzies, and the rest of the cast throughout. It’s a smart, sweet, sad, winning little show, and the season goes down easily in one burst. (Hulu is smartly releasing the whole thing on August 21st.)
Still, it’s hard to watch without thinking of it as an off-brand Fleabag. Now, Waller-Bridge didn’t invent the particular themes the two shows share, nor the blend of self-deprecating comedy and aching tragedy. But the two shows overlap in many specific ways, and This Way Up can’t help suffering in comparison, on both the comic and the dramatic ends. Its humor is gentler, if quite clever. (“David, pretend to have your mind blown,” Aine tells a boring date she intends to kiss before exiting.) And it wears its heart on its sleeve, though the emotions never feel quite as painful.
But there’s also this: Fleabag has not only turned out to be the show of 2019, but a very specific one, with only 12 episodes total between its two seasons. So if you fell in love with it, it left a uniquely-shaped hole in your heart that few other shows are built to fill. This Way Up just happens to be one of them. It won’t replace the feeling the other show gave you, but it’ll approximate it more than enough for three hours.
And if you’ve never seen or heard of Fleabag? Then This Way Up is still another strong addition to a TV year that’s been jam-packed with smart, emotionally complex comedies. (But also: You should watch Fleabag.)