FX’s marital drama-mystery overcomes an off-putting start to deliver a compelling actors’ showcase.
Fleishman Is in Trouble, the adaptation of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s novel starring Jesse Eisenberg, Claire Danes, and Lizzy Caplan, has a first-act problem. Or rather, a first-episode problem.
The series opens in the summer of 2016, just as it seems like the post-divorce life of Toby Fleishman (Eisenberg) and his ex Rachel (Danes) is settling into an unpleasant but workable routine. Toby has finally unpacked his smaller but still quite impressive bachelor’s apartment and re-established contact with two close college friends, Libby Epstein (Lizzy Caplan) and Seth Morris (Adam Brody). He insists he lost track of them only because of his degenerating marriage. He’s also discovering the apparent joys of being an early 40s divorced doctor on the dating apps in Manhattan.
Then Rachel disappears, sending his life, and the lives of their two kids, into chaos.
While narrated by Caplan’s Libby, the first episode very much centers Toby’s point of view and frankly does it all too well. Danes’ Rachel is reduced to such a cartoonish version of the too-ambitious-to-be-a-loving partner ex that she’s immediately and deeply off-putting. Early on, Libby invokes the most classic of misogynistic terms about Rachel, and one may find themselves thinking, “Well, I’d never call a woman that, but she certainly does seem to be that.”
Eisenberg fares better by comparison, but only just. He is, after all, the left behind husband, a hepatologist who has eschewed bigger paychecks and larger offices for a life of “really helping people,” while his ex evidently condescended to him for not striving more. Unfortunately, the weird poetic waxing sheen Libby pours over his numerous sexual exploits somehow makes them grosser than the more traditional way Brody’s horndog Seth alludes to his own intimate comings and goings. It is a bit like the show is letting the audience know, “This is like an East Coast Californication where you’re supposed to be pulling for the Duchovny character.”
Fans of the excellent novel will have a distinct advantage here over newcomers to the material. Those who have read the book know this is all edifice, a performance of the classic “wronged partner-selfish partner” divorce fable with the genders slightly mixed up. It will prove far more interesting in time. Alas, those who haven’t read the novel will likely want to jump ship and beat feet to anywhere else outside the world’s greatest city. And, frankly, who could blame them?
This reviewer, however, would urge them to stick with it. The first episode must arguably be so starkly black and white, so aggressively off-putting, to make the journey that follows work. Introducing nuance too early will ruin the prestige.
However, as with most of us, that cartoonishness is a kind of performative shield. It’s the shittiest way we can be to others or ourselves as a defense tactic. It’s often the amplification of our best features—ambition, self-care, concern for others—turned up to self-sabotaging levels. Try to remember the last time you felt truly overwhelmed and out of control. Then recall how you reacted. Did you become super Type A who’s caustic to everyone trying to help them? Or a living blob buried in blankets avoiding the light? Or the “not me, man, I’m great” helper of everyone around you? Fleishman Is in Trouble knows that setting. It just happens to capture it so well initially that it’s the only thing an audience can see.
Even better is how the shift in focus brings Caplan into much stronger resolution. Increasingly her narration of Toby’s “one crazy summer” becomes more about her increasingly predictable life. She isn’t unhappy she reassures the audience, and that seems honest. It isn’t that she wants to cheat on her husband, Adam. After all, as played by Josh Radnor, he’s the most decent person in the story. This will undoubtedly feel ironic to many. She doesn’t want to ditch her kids. She just needs to know that there’s something more—new, different, challenging—coming at some point.
Be open and forgivable of the first episode’s excesses because Fleishman is In Trouble is worth sticking with.
As Fleishman Is in Trouble progresses, it thoughtfully, if not exactly quietly and subtly, reveals the characters’ complexities. It also progressively becomes less about Toby, allowing Eisenberg to curdle his nebbish persona into something both tougher and uglier. At the start, what’s repulsive about Toby is his mythologizing of casual sex. He’s a grown man talking about one-night stands like a poetry major might discuss his different person every night hookups. As the spotlight drifts from him, however, viewers get to see how that sugary sweetness masks a bone-deep resentment and reservoir of self-hatred.
The rest of the cast similarly shows off its chops more with each episode. Danes has to play the proverbial possum longest. Like Amy in Gone Girl, she spends a long time only acting out others’ vision of her. When she finally emerges on her own terms, however, Danes nails a character that is everything others think of her but much more as well. Well-known for her weeping, she largely throttles back on the tears, making the 2-3 scenes where she cracks quietly devastating. Brody and Radnor are also quite good in roles that ask for decidedly less of them. Still, they both find depth in the characters.
It should be said that Fleishman Is in Trouble is VERY New York City. Specifically, upper middle class and above New York City. However, there is a ubiquitous in that specificity. Viewers may not have to contend with the 92Y Tribeca Yoga Moms, but they’ll probably recognize that vibe in their town’s downtown stoller warriors or the all-organic fanatics. They may not have to make small talk with the financial and pharma bros, but they’ll certainly recall similar slights and jockeying for “alpha status” with hunting experts or handyman heroes. The “uniform” and topics of conversation might be different in your circles. Still, the dread and frustration of facing these people you cannot stomach will feel immediately relatable.
Be like the liver that Toby obsesses about throughout the series. Be open and forgivable of the first episode’s excesses because Fleishman is In Trouble is worth sticking with.
Fleishman is In Trouble starts dividing up possessions November 17 on FX on Hulu.