That Back to Life kept being called “the next Fleabag” had to do, in part, with the fact that it was literally the next Fleabag. The series took over Fleabag’s time slot on the BBC when it premiered in the U.K. earlier this year.
When Daisy Haggard’s half-hour comedy—though it’s as much a “comedy” as Fleabag was—premieres Sunday on Showtime, viewers in the U.S. will see all the ways in which the countless comparisons between the two shows are merited, and the ways in which the series are, in fact, not like each other at all.
Like Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, Back to Life stars its creator, Haggard, a London-born actress and writer best known stateside for her scene-stealing supporting role in Episodes. It is, again like Fleabag, at once intense and tender, uncomfortable yet warm, and humorous in the face of massive emotional stakes. It’s also observant, forcing you to recognize yourself in ways that both make you feel seen and that you don’t want to see. Both series share a mission in exploring societal expectations of women, and the seismic effects that can have on a person.
“I’ve always been fascinated in how we vilify women who have done something bad over how we would treat the man,” Haggard says.
Breezing into a meeting room at the Beverly Hilton hotel in Los Angeles for a whirlwind press push for the series—she arrived from the U.K. less than 12 hours before, and will be on a plane again that afternoon—she jokes that she’s dressed like a Bond villain and apologizes for any jet-lagged loopiness that may ensue. “I feel like I should be stroking a puppy on my lap,” she says, glancing at her all-black ensemble. “Stop me if I get babbly. You can just say, ‘Daisy, be better. You’re off point. You’re talking about bananas.’”
Her show, Back to Life, begins when a woman named Miri moves back to her claustrophobic coastal hometown after serving 18 years in prison for committing a horrific, violent crime. It is the biggest, worst thing to happen in the small hamlet, something the community isn’t about to let her forget as she sets out to start anew. It’s also quite funny!
“How difficult would it be to try to start your life with this terrible thing hanging behind you?” Haggard says, before contorting into a laugh. “Great for comedy, you think?” But Miri is a relentless optimist and full of hope. “We have a curiosity in her crime, but we have to judge her for who she is now.”
Haggard says she’s always been interested in how we called Amanda Knox “Foxy Knoxy,” and the twisted implications of that sinister, misogynistic moniker. Miri wasn’t inspired directly by any particular case or headline, but more by a yearning to explore what those cases and headlines say about our society. “Anytime you read anything about a woman who’s done something, they’re always painted as more evil than a man, I think.”
Comparisons to Fleabag are apt in that these are both sensational female-led series that probe at provocative issues. Both shows were produced by brothers Harry and Jack Williams as well. But also, if that description didn’t make it clear enough, they are nothing like each other, at all.
It’s not truly possibly to quantify the amount of praise for Fleabag and Waller-Bridge that erupts from Haggard when these comparisons are brought up, not to mention her humility in being considered in the same breath as the Emmy-winning series and its creator. But she and Waller-Bridge have talked with each other about how their shows are, in fact, so different.
“I look forward to a time when there are so many women creating and writing strong, complicated shows about complicated people that they’re not compared,” Haggard says.
The series opens, it must be warned, with a triggering sequence, one that may send viewers into fits of post-traumatic stress: Miri is cutting her own bangs.
She’s repeating her introduction, “Hi, I’m Miri,” in various intonations and cadences into a mirror, rehearsing for a job interview—her first, we soon discover, in 18 years—and just tragically mutilating her hair. Each snip makes it worse. By the time she’s done, she cringes, trying to convince herself that the micro fringe she’s fashioned doesn’t make her look totally insane.
“Did you think, who is the stupid woman who wrote herself a show where she looks so ugly?” Haggard laughs. “I’m so silly. If we get a season two, I’m going to put her in some beautiful dresses. Get George Clooney in to co-star.”
She’s kidding, obviously. It was important to her that Miri not be glamorous. “It would have been a bit weird if she was. I love it when you watch a show and the leading character’s hardly wearing any makeup. I kind of embraced the bad hair, the terrible clothes, and the distinct lack of makeup, and the exhaustion.”
Of course, this isn’t a show about a woman with bad bangs—though the scene is indicative of how nimbly Back to Life injects humor into the darkest subject matter. It’s a rather timely case study of who deserves forgiveness and whom society is willing to forgive, with audiences asked to consider the question with empathy, even if they thrust their own views on it.
Haggard and her co-creator, Laura Solon, spent time talking with formerly incarcerated women while writing the show, learning that, even for women who had been out of prison for more than a decade, they are forever haunted by their crime.
Though they are different people now, or made mistakes for which they atoned, many felt they were not being given a second chance. Some changed their names, often after encountering a similar experience: being offered a job, then having it rescinded after the manager googled them. Often, they said that the way their crimes were portrayed in the news were incredibly different from what had actually happened, or from their versions of the truth. In essence, they are marked.
At different points in Back to Life, Miri’s house is graffitied, a brick is thrown through the window of her workplace, and expletives and insults are shouted and spat at her as she walks through the town’s streets. All the while, she’s navigating how much she wants to keep her past a secret from those who don’t know—refusing to let it define her—and when to lead with the formative moment in her life, since it would soon enough present itself as the elephant in the room.
“Who deserves a second chance and who doesn’t, it’s a very personal question, isn’t it?” Haggard says.
The whole project is miles away from the work American viewers might most closely associate with Haggard: the Showtime comedy Episodes, which starred Matt LeBlanc as a fictional version of Matt LeBlanc. For five seasons, she played Myra, the head of comedy at an American TV network who, as it happened, lacked any discernible sense of humor. Haggard’s bit was that Myra just constantly grimaces, a hilarious, elastic frown that was, as scripted, her reaction to everything.
She’s the daughter of director Piers Haggard, breaking into the business more through happenstance than nepotism. Her father asked her to help out by reading opposite girls he was auditioning for a project. A producer was so impressed by her reading with Emily Mortimer, he forced her father to let her audition for a part. Next thing she knew, she was playing Mortimer’s sister in The Ruth Rendell Mysteries.
Haggard is mostly known for comedy work in the U.K., something that followed her as she tried to broaden her range. Sometimes she couldn’t get seen for a role because producers only thought of her as Myra. “You want a juicy part, and if you don’t get it, if you can, write it,” she laughs.
The truth is she’d been spent years writing and trying to get a show made for herself, before Back to Life finally hit. Having it work out for her, especially with this role, is terrifying, while at the same time making her feel like the luckiest person in the world. Also lucky: She was filming the upcoming FX comedy Breeders with Martin Freeman when Back to Life was airing in the U.K., so she didn’t have time to stress out about the response.
“When you’re acting you could just blame everyone else. ‘Oh well. I didn’t write it! Not my words! Not my fault it was terrible!’” she says. This, however, is her vision. “If people really hate it, they hate you a bit.” Her face, almost as if by instinct, morphs into the Myra grimace, and she laughs. “I’m always crossing my fingers and hoping that no one hates it.”