Phoebe Waller-Bridge and her smart, nervy comedy “Fleabag” won four Emmys Sunday night, which was precisely four more than most expected a few months ago when Emmy campaigning began.
How did this happen? Did the show’s Hot Priest have some kind of connection to a higher power?
The six-episode second season of “Fleabag” dropped in mid-May on Amazon Prime, roughly three weeks before Television Academy voters began casting their ballots for this year’s Emmy nominations.
That didn’t leave much time to ramp up awareness for a BBC television comedy that had garnered zero Emmy nominations for its first season, despite good reviews for the show and its star-creator-writer Waller-Bridge.
“Fleabag’s” campaign team, led by director of awards Debra Birnbaum, needn’t have worried. The show’s second season went almost immediately viral, catapulting to the top of review aggregator Metacritic’s best-of-the-year list. It was a huge hit in its native England, home to a not-insignificant contingent of the Television Academy’s 24,000-plus membership — though the size of the voting body means that no one bloc can swing the outcome so easily. (It also means that the explanation for the Emmys’ edgy year is unlikely to be a motion picture academy-style demographic shift within the membership: Changing the composition of such a large institution is like turning a cruise ship.)
Beyond that, though, “Fleabag” took over the internet. The stylish black jumpsuit Waller-Bridge wore in the season’s first episode became a fashion and social media sensation. Fans confessed their love for Andrew Scott’s Hot Priest character with a multitude of memes.
“This was a program people needed to discover,” says an awards consultant who worked on “Fleabag,” “and when elements from your show start trending, you know you’re building the kind of awareness you need to break through with voters.”
The season’s brief running time — you could watch all six episodes in less time than it took to slog through the last “Avengers” movie — led to obsessive, repeat binge-watching for hardcore fans.
The buzz carried through voting with “Fleabag” earning 11 nods — including writing, acting and producing recognition for Waller-Bridge — when nominations were announced in July.
That kind of showing could be considered victory enough, particularly when the competition included lauded shows like the departing “Veep” and the ascending “Barry.”
But Amazon Prime, which also had last year’s comedy series winner, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” in the running, went on the offensive, bringing Waller-Bridge to Los Angeles in August.
Waller-Bridge and her co-stars, supporting actress Emmy nominee Sian Clifford and Brett Gelman, made the rounds at two events, one for the Screen Actors Guild, the other open to all guilds. (Emmy rules limit Television Academy-specific screenings after the nominations are announced.)
The screenings, in addition to a third event hosted by the industry trade Deadline, were popular enough to turn away people at the door, a rarity for a television event this late in the season. In addition, Waller-Bridge made the rounds doing interviews in support of the show.
Amazon also made sure that “Fleabag” remained relevant on social media as final Emmy ballots went out, re-creating the show’s guinea-pig cafe in a three-day pop-up on Melrose Avenue. The next-best thing to meeting Waller-Bridge? A cute selfie with an adorable rodent.
The awareness would have meant nothing if it didn’t go hand-in-hand with a deep, abiding love of “Fleabag’s” little miracle of a second season. And it probably didn’t hurt either that Emmy voters have a long history of being Anglophiles, rewarding British series like “Downton Abbey,” “The Crown” and “Sherlock” when given the chance.
Really, though, this did feel like a year when the tone of the cultural conversation surrounding a show was crucial to its success, be it Waller-Bridge and “Fleabag,” drama lead actor winner Billy Porter prevailing for “Pose” or Jodie Comer surprising everyone (including herself) with her drama lead actress win for “Killing Eve.” The most buzzed-about show of the moment, HBO’s “Succession,” even nabbed an unexpected win for writing for a drama series, underscoring voters’ apparent responsiveness to critics’ and audiences’ reception of the nominated series.
After all, on the other side of the coin, the fact that the memes surrounding the last season of “Game of Thrones” were more fun and satisfying than the show itself may explain its lackluster showing Sunday night. If there was a single takeaway from this year’s Emmys, it’s that it’s hard to ignore a million people signing a petition for a do-over. Or, for that matter, a few very vocal thousands clamoring on Twitter for a woman known as Fleabag to get it on with a priest.