The January 2020 Golden Globes confirmed what the Emmys told us last fall—the search for meaning is alive and well. Fleabag skyrocketed to attention this year in a field of television programs replete with lonely characters dissatisfied with life—and looking for a better way. Meantime, the Pew Reports tell us those searching for meaning are not finding it in church. The drumbeat of decline continues its downward trend for every age group, but plummets for millennials. They aren’t fleeing churches for lack of an invitation to stay. Our new pastor is attempting to lure millennials back into the fold. On Friday nights, he invites young adults to enjoy wine and cheese at the rectory following Eucharistic Adoration. And for young parents, a full roster of Catholicism 101 and Bible Timeline classes promise to reintroduce them to the beauty of the Catholic faith. Scheduling coincides with religious education for their kids. Attendance is sparse.
I binge-watched one weekend, compelled to see what kept people coming back to Fleabag week after week—and talking about how good the show is—”must-see TV.” Btw, evangelization in its purest definition is talking about how good something is. What’s the good news young people are finding outside of church?
The tragicomedy series establishes the heroine as a foul-mouthed-sex-crazed-millennial-dubbed-Fleabag (incredibly played by Phoebe Waller Bridge). The second season opens with her turning from a mirror to speak into the camera. Her nose is bloodied. She announces, “This is a love story.” We soon discover the blow was taken—and one given—in defense of her sister. But there is no love lost between the flailing Fleabag and her successful sister. Nor any warm feelings for the self-proclaimed goddess-woman (the marvelous Olivia Colman) who has her clutches into Fleabag’s widowed dad. Yet, when the flawed heroine listens to dad’s stuttered need to have someone with him at breakfast, she coaxes him to marry the woman. Fleabag may be a moral mess, but she tries to do right by her clan.
Enter the hot priest slated to perform the wedding. Does Fleabag want to join him in the rectory for wine and cheese? he asks. He offers her gin and tonic, but that’s not her thirst. She drags herself to an empty church to pray despite declaring herself free from “bull—-” belief. She prays, and later confesses, that what she wants is someone to tell her how life works, what to do and how to do it. Isn’t that what religion promises? Read the catechism. Excellent roadmap.
The priest is having a hard time reading the catechism these days. He is drinking quite a few gin and tonics by himself because the beauty of his vestments, the Italian workmanship he praises and the dedication it represents, is not enough. He needs more.
She needs … more.
A sexual tryst ensues. But lust is not love. Fleabag knows lust. She knows sexual satisfaction. She rolls in the hay with abandon.
This is different.
The priest—he doesn’t have a proper name either—may at first be attracted to Fleabag for obvious reasons, but that’s not why he falls in love with her.
They see each other, warts and masks and beauty. When Fleabag makes her asides to the camera, her snarky remarks that no one else hears—he hears. When the priest cuddles Fleabag’s guinea pig while telling our heroine that he wants to “help” her, she pulls that priestly ploy off so fast you can hear his collar rip. Love means telling truth to each other.
The truth is—they cannot be together. But they part changed. Still flawed, but with hope that indeed there is more to life. More than one-night stands, more than posing, more than rituals. They experienced intimacy, connection to another human being, were seen and loved—not used. They do not cling to each other but come away grounded in what their souls craved. Relationship. They let themselves be vulnerable, bleed a little. They now know how life works. There are no easy answers, no formulas, nobody to tell you what to do every step of the way. You stumble, make mistakes, get up and try again.
In religious circles, isn’t this what we call the hope of redemption?
I came away from my weekend binge watching enlightened. I had forgotten how God evangelizes. I fear that if parishes sidestep the messy business of life, providing catechetical roadmaps as the only sure way to redemption, we limit our Maker. Perhaps the draw of shows like Fleabag is the simple assurance that God also touches our hearts and minds in the off-road moments.