The game of Fleishman Is in Trouble is one of focus.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s 2019 best-selling novel, and the Hulu series she adapted from it, are eyes-on-the-prize stories. It’s an optometrist’s exam that makes you keep your mind focused on this one singular dot while there’s a battery of distractions in your peripheral vision. It’s a murder mystery where the narrator did it all along told through the lens of middle-aged malaise.
The plot has one central character: Toby Fleishman, as portrayed in the series by Jesse Eisenberg in what is essentially an eight-episode rendition of that Saturday Night Live monologue he once gave that mocked his perceived social awkwardness and ticks. Toby is a 40-something hepatologist in New York City who is going through a divorce. While he leans into the newfound world of dating apps and mutually agreed-upon one-night hookups, we’re also treated to his increasing hatred for his (ex) wife, an uber-successful, bootstrapping talent agent named Rachel (Claire Danes): why they fought, when they fought, and how they probably weren’t that good for each other to begin with. In Toby’s eyes, Rachel is angry, bossy, and emasculating as she conquers the New York theater scene and earns an income that allows them to give their two kids a ritzy private school education, summers at sleepaway camps, and a house in the Hamptons that they drive to in a luxury sedan.
And Toby hates all of it.
All of this is narrated by Libby (Lizzy Caplan), a stand-in for Brodesser-Akner (herself a former GQ reporter known for her detailed profiles of celebrities). Libby also spent years working at a men’s magazine where she was praised for her writing but wasn’t allowed to do any “real” stories. Libby, Toby, and their friend Seth (Adam Brody. Yes. I know. He’s playing another Jew named Seth) met during a college trip to Israel and were once an inseparable threesome. Then life got in the way and Libby found herself to be a stay-at-home-mom who lives a comfortable existence of pool parties and picnics in the New Jersey suburbs with her saintly husband Adam (Josh Radnor) and their children.
And she hates all of it.
Using a storytelling device common for magazine profile writing, Libby narrates a summer of Toby’s ups and downs and therefore makes him the hero and causes us to viciously hate Danes’ Rachel. Toby has to take care of the kids. Toby is the one who sacrifices job advancement for the sake of the family. Toby is the one who gets a dog to ease his kids’ pain of their other parent’s abandonment.
This is to say that the book, and the TV series, swap the gender dynamics that the media has drilled into us (at least when it comes to traditional marriages). Men can have midlife crises and ditch their wives or families for recent college graduates and flashy sports cars. Men can work all the time and climb the corporate ladder while women, either out of their own guilt or lack of opportunities, sacrifice career hierarchy for time with the children.
So which Fleishman is in trouble? Or is it all four of them?
It isn’t until the end of the season when we find out why Rachel left, why she worked so hard and (especially during a horrifying traumatic birth scene that makes the audience wonder how the couple ever had a second kid) why she seemed to keep her kids at a distance. And Libby is so invested in reporting the tale of her friend’s divorce to an audience of strangers that it also isn’t until later in the series that we get a full conversation on why she’s having an “is this all there is?” moment of her own. She doesn’t recognize the old Libby—the woman who wore makeup, smoked, and had a prestigious job—in the body of the woman who always sports the same dirty ponytail and who wears yoga pants and yells at her kids in the middle of an amusement park.
Women want to recapture the hope and freedom and irresponsibility of their youth too, ya know. The difference is that they have a cultural obligation to bottle up their rage and keep saying yes.
Gender flips aside, none of these topics are earth-shattering ideas. They’re also for a particular subset of humans (Americans) who “get” to even contemplate these issues—something the readers of the book, who likely come from a similar background as the characters, are more inclined to forgive than those who find the story through the mastermind of the Hulu algorithm. This will, no doubt, annoy the hell out of a lot of some reviewers and audiences. So will the fact that Danes, who is not Jewish, is playing a Jewish character in a decidedly Jewish tale that highlights the familial closeness of Friday night Shabbat dinners and Bat mitzvah prep (when Toby’s daughter asks why she has to go through the pretense of reading from the Torah and have blessings bestowed upon her just to show she’s an adult, his answer is essentially “we’re Jews. That’s what we do”—a Jewish rite of passage of his own).
There’s also some cheekiness that can be a little too self-referential. An avowed Philip Roth fan, Brodesser-Akner hasn’t shied away from the fact that the late novelist has had a monumental impact on her own writing styles. In the series, Christian Slater—of whom she once wrote a fawning profile—plays an accomplished writer whom Libby worships. There’s a scene where Libby expounds to Toby on the connective power of Facebook. Because it’s set in the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election, Rachel wonders if Hillary Clinton could win because of how much people hate her.
But, for those who this book and series are for, it will resonate hard. There are lines of the book, which I read when it came out, that I highlighted in my Kindle. A scene in the series where Eisenberg’s Toby is so lost and overwhelmed that he throws himself (naked) into a swimming pool just to black out for a while? I tend to write at night, after I’ve showered, because I need just a few minutes to clear my head. Another one where Danes’ Rachel tries scream therapy? I didn’t get to do it at a crunchy “wellness” retreat geared toward those with everyday problems but too much excess income, but I have possibly never felt more stupid than when I locked myself in my closet and tried to make myself scream. I even emailed a few actor friends to ask them to teach me how to do it. (No one replied). Libby speaks at the end of the series of the bond you have with your friends from college; those who only really knew you for a certain chunk of your life and will therefore kind of always see you as that awkward 19-year-old. I have a text thread with three college friends that isn’t used every day, but will occasionally ping me with some obscure inside joke that will make me stop and pause for a moment.
And the acting is substantial. The chemistry from all four of the leads is inspiring. The way Danes and Eisenberg are able to overlap dialogue until their fights are at a crescendo would make Noah Baumbach pause and take notice. Caplan, Eisenberg, and Brody act like people who have known each other for decades and—perhaps because they have each previously played characters who have resonated strongly in the public zeitgeist—make us, the viewers, feel like we’re in on the joke. The Fleishman children, played by Maxim Jasper Swinton and Meara Mahoney Gross, lack precociousness and actually seem like kids who are watching the only life they know dissolve. Even Danes’ use of her infamous ugly cries are effective and appropriately deployed.
The biggest issue is that the series, and its source material, clearly hit on a lot of things that I feel about myself and my own life. But I’m not sure how I am supposed to feel after it’s over. There’s no real resolution. Lots of questions are left unanswered or are only vaguely teased.
But maybe that is the point. Maybe we’re all in trouble.
The miniseries adaptation of Fleishman Is in Trouble premieres Thursday, November 17th on Hulu.
Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, and daughter.
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