W TV Club: Crashing is Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Twisted Take on Friends

"Bridgerton'"s Jonathan Bailey plays the "Joey" character with a sexual identity crisis.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Damien Molony in the scene of the comedy series Crashing.
Courtesy of Netflix/Channel 4

Imagine a show vaguely like Friends where the characters couldn’t actually afford those spacious Manhattan apartments, where the love triangles didn’t end so neatly (do they ever in real life?), where Joey and Chandler had sexual tension, and where everyone was British instead. Well, Phoebe Waller-Bridge actually delivered that show back in 2016 and it’s been widely available on Netflix for years since to little notice. It’s called Crashing, and just for added relevancy, one of the stars is Jonathan Bailey, one of the breakouts of Bridgerton.

The series actually premiered on the UK’s Channel 4 roughly six months before Waller-Bridge’s international hit Fleabag. Like that other show, it also found its roots in Waller-Bridge’s earlier theater work. It debuted to mostly positive reviews with many praising its creator and star as one to watch. It’s unlikely, however, that anyone imagined those predictions coming true later the same year. Fleabag’s monumental success has left Crashing as something of a career footnote—but don’t let that keep you from enjoying it on its own merits. Besides, at just six episodes, it can be easily binged in a lazy afternoon.

Like Friends, the show focuses on a group of six twenty-somethings evenly divided amongst the genders (though a down-on-his-luck middle-age man also features into the main cast). Unlike Friends, the show actually acknowledges the ridiculously unaffordable state of urban real estate. The group lives in an abandoned hospital under a scheme called Property Guardianship (tenants pay cheap rent in exchange for watching over uninhabited buildings that might otherwise be occupied by squatters or fall pray to vandalism, though the arrangement could end at any moment). Whereas similar American shows tend to telegraph the perfect happy ending for their character early in their run and keep audiences hooked in anticipation, Crashing’s characters find themselves chasing hopelessly messy situations you may, at times, actively root against. You know, sort of like what actual young adults do.

Waller-Bridge stars as Lulu, an aimless, ukulele-playing gadabout who makes her Fleabag character seem redeemable. She arrives in London to reconnect with her childhood friend Anthony (played by Damien Molony) despite the fact he’s engaged to the particularly anal retentive Kate (played by Louise Ford). The “will they or won’t they?” sitcom trope is quickly inverted into “will Lulu or won’t she actively ruin Anthony and Kate’s relationship?” You’re left cycling through sympathy and repulsion for all three involved, and at some points the only thing you hope is that all three just get the hell away from each other—which isn’t easy, given their living situation.

Such cringe comedy is par for the course when it comes to British sitcoms, but the show’s other main characters’ plot lines can coax some sentimentality out of you. Eccentric French artist Melody (played by Julie Dray) develops a deep obsession with Colin (Adrian Scarborough), a middle-aged man who moves into the hospital after his marriage hits a few rocks. If you squint your eyes, the Melody character seems like a rough sketch of Villanelle from Killing Eve with lust for the middle-aged and married intact, but minus the thirst for actual blood. It’s also just a plainly silly reversal on the stereotype of middle-aged male artist preying on young women as their “muses.” The pairing taunts you with how bizarre it is and how little control Colin seems to have over the situation, but somehow it emerges as the least messy pairing among the group.

Courtesy of Netflix/Channel 4

More interesting may be the situation between Sam (Bridgerton’s Bailey) and Fred (Amit Shah). Sam is an upperclass, straight sex addict who has moved into the hospital as he’s on the outs with his rich family (daddy issues abound). Fred is a very shy gay man who tends to keep to himself until Sam practically forces them into an unwitting “Joey and Chandler” friendship. The trope of sexual tension between a gay man and a “straight” guy is always a bit tired, but Crashing immediately inverts it, making clear that Sam is the one hung up (the fact that Bailey himself is openly gay means his character isn’t played for cheap laughs, either). Fred is perplexed by the situation, but isn’t sitting in his room pining over Sam. He actually sort of feels bad for him, as almost every other character does while Sam starts to unravel.

With only six episodes, there are no easy, storybook endings to be found here. Clearly, some room was left for a possible follow-up season. Though it certainly works on its own as is, and at the end of it, you’re left with the feeling that every character has actually achieved their own hard-won growth. They may not immediately know what to do with it, but it’s growth nonetheless. With Waller-Bridge’s career now in the stratosphere and Bailey on the biggest original streaming success possibly ever, it’s unlikely we’ll ever get a second season. Perhaps imagining that these tortured twenty-somethings have gone through enough to land in something nearing stability in their 30s, thus making any reunion season moot, is the happiest ending you could imagine for them.

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