It shouldn’t be a huge surprise that, for most people, the set-up in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag makes the series largely “unrelatable” on the surface. The sense of jeopardy is dampened by the huge house belonging to the main character’s father, and her obvious wealth is at odds with the experience of most people. These are fair observations. I found it a bit grating that she is meant to be financially precarious, but manages to live alone in London.
This thought though, examined in a weekend article in The Guardian, sparked a question. Fleabag was made to entertain – an objective met with delightful aplomb. So to what extent does it matter, from a pure entertainment perspective, whether a TV character’s context is wholly representative of its audience?
On the face of it, Frasier Crane embodied a puny demographic. As a wealthy Seattle radio psychiatrist with a taste for sherry and opera, his life looked very different to mine when I fell in (platonic) love with him as a child in the late Nineties. But his relationship with his younger brother Niles was very recognisable to me, as the older of two sisters.
Niles’ digs at Frasier (“How exciting, to be at the birth of a new phobia”) and Frasier’s feints at dominance (“Copernicus called, turns out you’re not the centre of the universe!”) for all their learned flair, made immediate sense.
Other tensions within the show unfolded as I got older. I realised that the sometimes uncomfortable dynamic between Frasier and his father Martin stemmed not only from Martin’s physical limitations and dependence – he was stuck in his chair in Frasier’s apartment most of the time – but the broader connotations of that dependence.
Martin’s former job as a cop highlighted the absurdity of Frasier and Niles’ safe renaissance world. On the flipside, Frasier and Niles exorcised their emasculation by showing off their academic prowess, and their money. Martin may have been a “real man”, but unlike him, they got rich.
The awkward juxtaposition of wealth and family repeats itself across sitcoms, and is rarely less accessible for its specificity. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air showcased preposterous circumstances – how many poor kids growing up in Philadelphia conveniently have family in Bel-Air?
But like Martin Crane, Will Smith’s fish-out-of-water status made his cousins’ riches stand out in even brighter technicolour. Will’s coolness made his cousin Carlton look even dorkier. For all his “normal” roots, Will was extraordinary – hyper-charming, hyper-handsome, hyper-confident. It was by no means a given that every child watching would identify directly with Will, but he was captivating whether you did or not.
No writer should be siloed into subject matter according to their demographic. That would be boring, and do nothing to solve the issue of onscreen representation. But it’s understandable that many are drawn to write about things informed by their own experience. Phoebe Waller-Bridge doesn’t “have” to write exclusively about posh young women, but it makes sense when she does.
The more serious problem – that writing for TV should be an opportunity open for far more non-rich, non-white people – wouldn’t be solved by Waller-Bridge pretending to be something she isn’t.
If every writer were to try to encapsulate the whole of human experience – or even a whole group of humans’ experience within a single narrative, they’d choke it. Specificity is an asset to good comedy and good writing, because in its relief, the universal rings clearer.
As an audience, we don’t need to have rich parents, or extraordinary lives, to understand the foibles and stresses of those who do. For writers, it is genuine understanding of their characters which makes for fantastic story-forming. Which is why “write what you know”, whatever you know, remains the best advice.