IT IS usually an unbridled pleasure to see a woman thriving in her career. This is particularly the case in television, a medium currently experiencing a reckoning as women voice their frustration with pay disparity and their exclusion from writers’ rooms and directors’ chairs. Earlier this year, for example, it was revealed that less than 10% of the new drama on ITV, a British broadcaster, in 2018 would be written by women. This prompted an open letter to commissioners entitled “Why won’t you work with us?” Nor is the problem confined to Britain. A recent report by the University of California found that of 45 new American shows greenlit from 2017 to 2018, only seven had female creators. 

But if there is one female writer whose talent is unanimously recognised, it is Phoebe Waller-Bridge. The acclaimed writer and star of “Fleabag”—the first season of which enjoys a 100% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes—has now penned “Killing Eve” and the drama turns on the experiences of (and tussle between) two smart, career-minded women. Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh: “Grey’s Anatomy”, “Sideways”) is a desk-bound MI5 agent, bored with her marriage, her wardrobe and desperate for an opportunity to prove herself in the field. By contrast, Villanelle—played by Jodie Comer (“Doctor Foster”, “The White Princess”)—is thriving, but in this case it’s difficult to feel good about that. Young, well-paid, appreciated by her bosses and with an enviable sense of style, she travels around Europe with all the verve of a woman in a Peroni advert doing what she does best: assassinating people.

Polastri, of course, is soon sleuthing in Villanelle’s wake, with both women intrigued and stimulated by the existence of the other. While this Sherlock-and-Moriarty set-up is hardly new, Ms Waller-Bridge refreshes it by being generous with the assorted cast of colleagues, lovers and friends—if psychopaths can be said to have friends—of the two female protagonists. Polastri struggles with the bruised ego of one boss and mentor (David Haig: “Four Weddings and a Funeral”), the assured coolness of another (sublimely played by Fiona Shaw, “Harry Potter”) and her relationship with her husband, which is companionable, but little more. Villanelle has different problems. “Why are you doing this?” screams one of her terrified victims. “I have absolutely no idea,” she shrugs, before shooting him in the head. Actually, Villanelle loves her job, executing her marks with a flair that in other circumstances might be enviable. Her problems stem from the ever-more-zealous control her shadowy paymasters are seeking to exert. “But she has asthma,” she angrily pouts at her handler (Kim Bodnia: “The Bridge”) after he threatens to cancel a job she has set her heart on. “You know I love the breathy ones.”

Rather short for so ambitiously stocked a cast and the ground it has set itself to cover—“Killing Eve” consists of eight 40-minute episodes—there is at times a little too much to zip through. Luckily, Ms Waller-Bridge has experience in this regard: the very first minute of “Fleabag” saw the heroine handle the etiquette of anal sex during a 2am Tuesday booty call. Her new show is less concerned with sex, but happily retains the quirky humour and, remarkably, the sense of the absurd that made its predecessor so much fun to watch. “Killing Eve”, which premiered on BBC America on April 8th and has recently been acquired for British audiences by BBC One, is a witty, dark and tightly scripted triumph. Perhaps commissioners should take note and, in season two, give the characters a little more room to breathe.