The camera pushes in across an upside down Manhattan skyline into a darkly lit apartment to find Dr. Toby Fleishman (Jesse Eisenberg) lying alone in bed. A female voiceover, that of Libby (Lizzy Caplan), for reasons explained later, narrates the life of her college friend and recent divorcee. Superimposed above his head are the profile pics of woman after woman quickly being dismissed or cataloged with a swipe to the left or a swipe to the right. Toby is hunts down his next sexual conquest. After 15-years, his “lifetime bet on one woman,” his wife, Rachel Fleishman (Claire Danes) has gone bust. He is reduced to this. Welcome to the modern day non-romance story.
Fleishman Is In Trouble is the adaptation of Taffy Brodesser-Akner‘s debut novel of the same name brought to the small screen with painfully rewarding results. The series covers a surprising amount of emotional real estate, themes and tones over its eight-episode run. We continue to follow our hapless Dr. Toby through the post-marriage dating scene. It could be easy to mistake the series for a somewhat raunchy romantic comedy or a humorous take on single dad dating in the modern era. That is until Rachel goes missing. Instantly there is mounting, new weight to the whole situation. The question now, Which Fleishman is in trouble?
Be warned, if you are craving for an easy-to-process lightweight series in the vein of Friends, you better prepare yourself for something much more taxing. Based on some details I revealed above you may even be anticipating a Gone Girl type mystery… well, wrong again. That is one of the series’ most alluring aspects; like real life, it is not easy to define and often changes shape when you least expect it. Just when you think you know what to expect it takes us down new corridors that dispute our established interpretations.
The narrative is more or less an afterthought, the centerpiece here is the study of emotion weaved into a relationship. Brodesser-Akner has no interest in delivering a defined beginning, middle, and ending tied up perfectly with a bow. Instead she briskly moves us through a more freeform dissection of marriage, never trying to define the undefinable. Focus shifts as we go back and forth through time, dropping in out of the Fleishman’s lives; first dates, dinner parties, child births, fights, and museum visits. The ambiguity about where this is all leading and what viewers should take away from it is what locks us in so tightly waiting for more.
While continuing to be told through Libby’s words the perspective shifts allowing us into the characters’ heads and heartbreak. As new details come to light and her stances change, so does her tone towards her group of friends in the narration. Suddenly Toby, who expertly played the victim card is not cast in such forgiving light. All the while the Fleishman journey is intertwined in Libby’s own journey of self-reflection in the most satisfying of ways.
Brodesser-Akner challenges her viewers and ‘broken’ characters. As they try to heal their relationship wounds, she consistently tears off the band-aid and starts poking around at the open sore. Across episodes we revisit some of the couple’s most uncomfortable moments several times, completely altering our initial read on them. There are few wins to celebrate, if any, mainly just a series of compromises as any ‘good’ relationship consists.
Eisenberg is at the top of his game. While Toby’s flaws push through in his resentful words, he remains a sympathetic character thanks to his trademark sad sack anxiety. Danes slips into her role as Rachel comfortably even as the requirements become ever more demanding. She lacks the screen time of Eisenberg, but wrings out every ounce of emotion in each scene, especially in the second half of the series.
As our narrator off-screen and Libby on-screen, Caplan is exceptional. Her narration is the thread that holds it all together taking us places we would otherwise be unable to venture. She delivers a nuanced performance, guiding us through the damaged lives of her friends tinged with her own sadness. I would not be surprised to see the trio in the conversation as The Emmys roll around.
Also in the cast are Adam Brody who plays Toby and Libby’s cocky friend Seth, who celebrates the advantages of single life and the perfectly cast Josh Radnor as Libby’s husband who quietly does all the heavy lifting in their relationship. Both bring to the mix distinct viewpoints to the relationship game. We have watched all of these actors grow up on screen, now the promise of youth is replaced by middle age malaise.
The series could easily be a completely unbearable watch as the Fleishmans are a privileged well-to-do family caught up in their own world full of first-class, 5-star, first world problems – something that may be tough to relate with as people are dealing with inflation and interest rate hikes. But thanks to some of the best acting of the year it is much easier to empathize with them. So much so that you may even want to reach out and give them all a hug as much of their pain is quite universal.
Not everyone will connect with this series. Younger audiences may not ‘get it’… yet. As parental woes, the stress of career ambitions and the deterioration of a long romance are probably still foreign to them. Not all good things come with age; unfortunately pain, regret and loss are often the side effects of a long life lived. For others its themes and the deconstruction of the pressures of marriage may hit too close to home.
The series has a lot to say which will all be filtered through our own truths. While captivating and peppered with humor, it is not always an easy ride in the best of ways. Along with all the funny and sweet moments of life, come the sad, frightening, and disappointing. Love and life can be messy and Fleishman Is In Trouble does not back away from exploring that all it. While the series often paints a hopeless portrait of marriage, I still left with underlying glimmer of hope. Fleishman does not provide all the answers, bur recognizes so many of us have the same questions. It will be interesting to see how others interpret it.
Fleishman Is In Trouble is an FX series airing on Hulu. The first two episodes are available now and the rest of the 8-part series will be released weekly on Thursdays.