How do you end a story about everything?
While watching Fleishman Is in Trouble, I often thought about my Contemporary American Literature professor. After every book he would ask us “how is this literary?” Each time the question made me go a little insane. How do you quantify “literary” on a scale? What makes Interpreter of Maladies definitively literary but An American Marriage a dubious inclusion? I formed a reactionary bias to the genre as a whole, the very genre the novel Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner is perfectly at home in: literary fiction. I associated the term with objective markers of academia, a limiting metric. But how does Hulu’s Fleishman Is in Trouble feel so very literary, and why don’t I cringe when I write that?
It comes down to voice. For Fleishman Is in Trouble, that voice belongs to Libby (Lizzy Caplan). She’s the voice that tells us the story of Toby (Jesse Eisenberg) and Rachel Fleishman’s (Claire Danes) woes. But wrapped in their story is the tale of her life’s undoing. She may shift her focus, and her interpretations are skewed toward the realities she happens to hear about. She’s a journalist rediscovering how to listen to every side of a story.
Novels will always have an advantage when it comes to perspective. Sure, the camera can follow a certain point of view, creating an audio-visual mosaic that displays only what the filmmaker wants you to know. But prose has a voice that can be thick and mangled or smooth as silk. The voice is the entire world, the construction is all in your head. It’s just you and the language; everything else is invisible.
This is why I’ve always been naturally disinclined toward narration in film and TV. It often feels like forcing one medium into another. This isn’t to say narration is inherently a poor technique, but it is often relied upon when other methods of cinematic communication fail. There’s a reason it’s the suggestion studios most often give when they think an audience isn’t following along.
But Libby’s narration in Fleishman Is in Trouble is the best adaptation of voice I’ve seen. It’s not just that Caplan delivers her lines with a wonderfully charismatic fervor. As any writer will tell you, not all writers are good readers. Libby is an excellent reader, the kind you see speak once in your mid-20s that fosters a life-long obsession with their work. She is the reader she saw in Archer Sylvan (Christian Slater). It’s not just what story you tell, it’s how you tell it. Libby isn’t telling a story about everything; Libby is telling a story about everything.
In the finale of Fleishman Is in Trouble, Toby refers to him and Libby as the “co-stars” of Seth’s story, the best friends that sit around while he makes all the big decisions. But that relationship is complicated. Each character makes the mistake of seeing themselves as both the main character and the side-kick to someone else’s life. Toby’s obsession with his own point of view simplifies the complexity of Rachel, Libby’s obsession with Toby’s troubles justifies her minimization of her own problems and the inner lives of the people she dismisses. And then there’s Rachel, alone in a world no one cared to enter. The series’ interpretation of how perspective changes everything is embodied in Sully’s science fair project on superposition. Everything exists at the same time even if you’re only looking at one element.
Fleishman Is in Trouble features a recurring style motif of the camera tilting, turning the characters and their world upside down. The cast of the show may feel like the world has changed but it hasn’t—the perspective has. The camera, the visual extension of the show’s voice, is what’s changing. And the whole world hasn’t shifted, just your own. Fleishman Is in Trouble wraps you in the Vantablack, the realm where you can’t perceive anything but your own body, and tells you that that is all there is to feel. You can listen to someone else’s life, you can be a character in another story, but your world is your own.
When you get lost in perspective, either your own or someone else’s, you lose a bit of yourself. The grief over your past, present, and future is Fleishman Is in Trouble’s greatest achievement. We were all once young and uncaring about the future. After Rachel’s assault when giving birth, she feels she lost not just her life as someone victimized, but her entire possible identity of a mother. If that didn’t happen, would she have been different as she held her child? Would she have been able to love?
But as Libby describes, choices get made and the future narrows. Libby thinks those choices are a loss for most of the series. But the finale asserts a point of view of perpetual nostalgia. In this moment, the very moment you are reading these words, you are the youngest you will ever be. The world may not be as open as it was when you were 25 and without care, but your life isn’t over when you move to the suburbs. That future isn’t dead, it’s just gotten older.
The show makes it easy to get lost in your own roads not taken. I watched the show, a series that feels more novel-esque than any other in recent memory, and found myself thinking about reading. I used to read 300 page books in an afternoon. I wrote novels and short stories. I grew up in Los Angeles but I wouldn’t be one of those entertainment industry people. No, I found myself in a true art. An art with a voice. But I watched a lot of TV and then I discovered I liked writing and thinking about TV. And one day I found myself in Los Angeles again and I looked down at the obscure British novel that had been untouched in my bag for months and thought “I was literary once.” I don’t remember the subject changing.
Fleishman Is in Trouble is the eulogy to that obsessive thinking of “what if?” Or at least it stopped that train from speeding in circles through my head. It’s a rare thing to come across a show that claims to be about everything and actually manages to accomplish that without cliche. Libby’s voice is both the outsider and the inner monologue. Her words craft a story that is poised and decisive, that pulls back the layers of little things.
When my professor was looking to define literary he was thinking of refined prestige. But maybe there was another answer. As I watched Fleishman Is in Trouble I rediscovered that love of language and analysis that led me to be in a contemporary literature class to begin with. I poured over the series like it was a foundational text. I changed my definition of literary: when half the delight of reading is dissecting every detail until the text is raised to a higher plane. Literary is just language, pure and all-consuming. Literary is when the words become the Vantablack.
So, how do you end a story about everything? For Libby it’s Rachel coming home, and that she always wanted to come home. Libby says that lacks imagination. That’s how a nice story would end, the type of simple hopefulness that seems beneath everything Fleishman Is in Trouble seemed to be about. That’s too much of a goodbye. The three friends told us this isn’t the end.
But you have to choose a moment, a perspective, a feeling to leave on. A key in the lock, a figure at the doorway. All you need is something final to take with you. Libby says that Toby chose optimism. It’s a tool, a filter for a new worldview that will alter how he sees all the futures to come. To put it simply, it changes the way he sees his everything.
Leila Jordan is a writer and former jigsaw puzzle world record holder. Her work has appeared in Paste Magazine, FOX Digital, The Spool, and Awards Radar. To talk about all things movies, TV, and useless trivia you can find her @galaxyleila
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