Night of the Comet

A foundational influence on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so obviously I watched it when it came up on Netflix. It's a 1980s horror-comedy which isn't particularly scary and where the comedy is partly about the film's own knowingness about the genres it's operating in. So you can see why Joss Whedon might have been into it. The film starts off in a cinema and has several key scenes in a radio studio, and both the movie posters that decorate the sets and the brash pop music soundtrack (mostly diegetic) provide a metacommentary on the unfolding plot. That distancing effect crosses into the dialogue. There is some (unconvincing) acknowledgement of the trauma of having the world end, but for the most part the survivors react to the situation with a healthy amount of ironic detachment.

Eberhardt's inspiration for the script came from joking around with teenage girls about what they would do in a zombie apocalypse, and reflecting the fact that his respondents were mostly worried about not being able to date anymore. The sense of possibility inherent in a largely automated world where the adults have disappeared is at the heart of the film and is highlighted by its ending, where the guns are put away and a new and happier family unit is established amidst the ruins of the city. The apocalypse purifies the world of absent fathers and abusive mothers, and allows for the creation of something new. You can see the impact on Whedon when he describes most of his projects as being about the formation of alternate families.

Part of the film's purpose is to demonstrate that typical California girls are tougher and more resourceful than the horror movie stereotypes would have you expect. They can be sexually active, obsessed with arcade games or on the cheerleading squad and still fight off zombies. The big twist in the film is also gendered, in that the government agent you expect to be evil but who ends up saving the kids is a woman overruled by her male superiors. The film has a refreshingly uncondescending approach to its hard-bitten female characters. It's yet another thing Whedon will have picked up on when creating Buffy.



I've been trying to work out why this doesn’t irritate me the way Lena Dunham’s Girls did, given the initial similarities. For all of Dunham's self-flagellation, there was nonetheless a sense of entitlement to her project – ultimately she does want to be the "voice of a generation" despite the claim being sheathed in irony within the show. Her erasure of people of colour is all the more damning as a result. Fleabag is also white and middle class (and to my eyes the design of her flat doesn't quite square with the economics of running a failing small business in London), but she has no pretensions to being destined for great things. She's just another lost soul in the city.

The stakes are also higher than anything Hannah Horvath has to deal with. Both characters have a lack of self-esteem which lead them to make poor romantic choices (to put it mildly). But with Fleabag, this is presented as a kind of yawning crater opened up as a result of multiple bereavements, made worse by the fact she blames herself for one of them. The show is funny in the typical excruciating British comedy-of-manners way, but it's just as much a dark drama about someone's life falling apart, and their attempt to clutch desperately at things that might put it back together.

That's the first season anyway. The second one is about the upswing after reaching the pits of despair. The cleverest part of the show is that it finds a way to provide a psychological explanation for its signature technical innovation – Phoebe Waller-Bridge's masterful asides to camera. I imagine this technique grew out of the show's origins as a one-woman play, but there was always something slightly incongruous about a deeply lonely person having this animated inner dialogue with the audience. Who really is she talking to?

The introduction of a love interest who is a priest brings this out. The dramatic tension inherent in a sexually voracious character falling in love with someone sworn to abstinence is obvious. But the connection the two characters form is built on this propensity to communicate with invisible people. The show draws this out explicitly – the priest is the only one who can sense Fleabag's asides, even if he can't overhear them. They are prayers, and we are Fleabag's chorus of gods.

The arc of the show thus becomes Fleabag's conjuration of an army of silent companions that bear witness to her struggles – an imaginary source of comfort and validation she cannot get from her deeply messed up family. The show ends with the realisation that she doesn't need us anymore –  unlike the priest, who chooses God over love and in doing so is revealed to be a coward. The show might break off the affair at the end, and be seen to end on a downer. But there is a triumph in Fleabag's final wave goodbye to us. She is casting off her crutches and is finally able to cope on her own.