Fleishman Is in Trouble appears to be a story about a divorce.
But it ends up being about… everything. Or, as the show’s narrator and star Lizzy Caplan puts it, “It’s about the whole fucking world.”
Creator Taffy Brodesser-Akner adds, “It’s a story about middle age and marriage and divorce, and getting older and nostalgia and lifelong friendship, and parenting and career and ambition. There’s no category of middle-class, middle-life that it isn’t about. But ultimately, Fleishman is a story about storytelling.”
After six episodes of telling Fleishman Is in Trouble from mainly the perspective of divorced dad Toby Fleishman (played by Jesse Eisenberg), the FX on Hulu series shifted its POV to that of his ex-wife Rachel Fleishman (played by Claire Danes) and effectively pulled off the same trick the show’s creator Taffy Brodesser-Akner accomplished with her 2019 best-selling debut novel of the same name.
That penultimate episode, “Me Time” — an acting tour de force for Danes — filled in the blanks about Rachel and the Fleishmans, and shattered viewers’ assumptions up until that point. Most effectively, it teed up the show’s finale reveal that the true star of this story is actually Libby (Caplan), Toby’s friend and Fleishman narrator who would go on to write the book on which the series is based. All of this comes together in a meta ending in “The Liver” that, similar to the book, is sure to bring about conversations and debates about what the Fleishman audience is meant to take away from the ending.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Brodesser-Akner and Caplan (who is playing the character most based on Brodesser-Akner) together on Zoom for a chat that both opened and closed with the collaborators expressing their love for one another. Below, the showrunner/writer and her star shed light on the process to adapt this story for TV — including the ideas and scenes that didn’t make the final cut, and if there could be a second season — and share their insightful takes on the “unanswerable questions” posed by the ending.
Taffy, you’ve spoken about how your job as a magazine profile writer made you realize that people sympathize with stories about men, which led to you write about Toby Fleishman and subvert this story. What was the experience that prompted you to actually sit down and write the book Fleishman Is in Trouble?
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: When I turned 40, a lot of people started coming to me and telling me they were getting divorced. They would show me their phones and I thought it was wild the way people were dating now. When I was dating, so much involved you showing up as a person. And the utter efficiency of being able to date while you’re watching TV? Just, all of it was so appealing to me. After I spoke to like my fifth person, I called up my GQ editor and said, “We have to do this story on how people are dating.” It was 2017 and he said to me, “You don’t often sound like a ‘housewife in the suburbs’ the way you call yourself one, but right now, you sound like a housewife in the suburbs.” So I got off the phone and almost called my other editor at New York Times Magazine, but I stopped. I knew what the New York Times version of this would look like: Following a guy around for a year who, nine months in, will say, “Oh but my kids, I can’t participate in this,” and then I’ll have to figure something out. And also, it would just be sad. So, I pulled over into the Le Pain Quotidien near Union Square and I wrote 30 pages in a sitting.
And Toby Fleishman was born.
Brodesser-Akner: And that was that. Toby was born.
People who have read the book know the role Libby plays in this story. But with the show, you could have new viewers coming in or people who might expect some of the story to change. How did that impact your approach to the series and anything you wanted to do differently?
Brodesser-Akner: Can I answer that first? Because [Lizzy], you’re not going to give the right answer because it would be too much bragging. We had a cast that just understood the project, and was secure enough in their places in the world. You take Lizzy, who seems like this narrator side character — too small of a role for marquee Lizzy Caplan — but who knew that, in the end, emerges as the main character. You take Claire Danes, who is not on Twitter, but has to endure six weeks of people saying, “Boy did they misuse Claire Danes.” Or, “There should be more Claire Danes in this.”
Everyone knew what the project was and my biggest fear when there were actresses who wanted to attach themselves to this show was that once someone is attached early on in the selling process, they make their role bigger. These roles are huge, they just emerge at the end. Or, they sneak up on you. And [if we had made a role larger], that is to not understand the nature of the book; it would change the whole thing completely. I was very lucky that Lizzy, especially, was able to kind of bide her time in scenes where she didn’t talk that much. The misuse of Lizzy Caplan in the inevitability of the big Lizzy Caplan [reveal]. Lizzy, would you like to talk now?
Lizzy Caplan: (Laughs) In the actual shooting, I definitely asked Taffy a few times like, “If I’m Libby — and we know Libby has thoughts and opinions about pretty much everything; she’s talking this entire time — why would I be sitting in a diner with my two close friends [Toby (Jesse Eisenberg) and Seth (Adam Brody)] and not weigh in on this or this or this? Why am I letting them talk? It’s gonna feel weird, right?” And Taffy was like, “No, it won’t. Don’t forget that we do hear you talking the entire time and just, hold tight.”
I didn’t push really beyond that. I had a lot of faith in the process. And one thing I’ll say about all the actors is that everybody was tasked with holding back or receding. Every single one of them. I think actually the real unsung hero of the whole thing is Jesse, who does so much of the heavy lifting and then fully recedes by the end when we see what the story truly is. And there are very few actors that I think have the fortitude of ego, or whatever would be required to do that. He ends with whatever the opposite of a hero’s farewell would be. And it’s just a testament to him. Same with Claire. To be able to have faith, that if everybody just holds tight.
I had the same thing. I’m the most annoying person in the world when this show started coming out and people were talking about it. I was getting all these texts from my friends who were watching in real time — which, I can’t even remember? That’s so rare. As an actress in this business, I am 100 percent in favor of the week-to-week release. I miss it. I think it’s great. On a selfish level, I hate working so hard on something and having it disappear after a weekend because people either binge it or don’t, and it’s over. I like extending it and I like the conversations that it causes for a viewer. But for Fleishman, I just kept saying, “You’ve got to watch the whole thing. Just promise me you’re going to watch all eight.” For this show, bingeing would work and it would be a really fulfilling experience, so I was sort of of two minds on it.
But back to this notion of passing the baton; each character does pass the baton to the next character, and sometimes we pass it back. You pass the spotlight in such a way. It’s a waste of time to say they were selfless and not looking out for their own storyline, or for the big storyline the whole time, because it’s just so beneath all of them that I’m pretty sure that never even crossed anybody’s mind. We were just nervous of this one story.
Brodesser-Akner: That is absolutely true. I want to agree on that Jesse thing, because Jesse does not interact with the world. He will call me and talk to me and if I say how it’s going, he’s interested. And he has felt this to be a big thing. He walks down the street in either New York or Indianapolis where he lives and people say something to him about it, and he has said that has not happened to him. I am interacting on a micro-level on all of this because I have not accepted that in this case as a non-journalist I should recede into the world.
Caplan: You are also dealing with actors who are not on social media, so you have to do it all for us!
Brodesser-Akner: Right! I have to report back and tell everyone how it’s going. But the thing that that affords Jesse is to really participate in a performance and to have no vanity about it. He did not say, “I’m worried people will hate this guy. I’m worried people won’t find him cuddly.” He just went into a corner and came out a way fuller person than I created. They all did. That was remarkable to me. When I was interviewing actors for my [journalism] career, I wish I had ever thought of to ask them about acting (laughs). Because I never truly understood. People would say, “Oh, these scripts are so full” — they weren’t; for an actor, they’re outlines. Because they have to show up as these real, full people. And they have to make a million decisions that I didn’t make. I watched this show and I love the people they made.
When it all starts to come together in episode seven, “Me Time,” you start to see how similar Libby and Rachel feel, even though they’re such different people. They were unseen and unheard, and it gets more unmanageable for one than the other. Was there debate about where you should place Rachel’s story and deliver this Rachel-Libby shift in the story; how did you decide on the second-to-last episode?
Brodesser-Akner: I’ll tell you two things. Number one, there was no debate, but everybody involved knew there was a risk. But the thing that people liked about this story was the experience of it, and the risk was the risk we saw, which was a few weeks of people saying, “I really like this, but it feels weird to be watching something that feels a little retro.” [Note: The series is set in 2016, the year Brodesser-Akner wrote the novel.] We all knew this was a weird thing, and also we all knew that the only good things are original things, and that to mess with the form is kind of the next iteration of television, maybe. To mess with the form at this level. That’s my answer. Did you feel like it was a risk, Lizzy?
Caplan: No. Especially because when we shot it, we did block shooting.
Brodesser-Akner: Nobody knew what was going on!
Caplan: But I think in order to guarantee that the audience was complicit, we needed to give it a lot of time. We needed to make sure the audience felt a certain way about Rachel so that in order to flip it, it was really going to be holding up a mirror. And I don’t know if it would have been as effective if that turn came earlier.
But I didn’t question it because in the actual shooting of it, all I knew was that the dialogue that I was tasked with saying — and I think I can speak for the rest of the cast — was just exceptional and powerful. And I felt very lucky to be saying it, and I probably read the scripts more than anyone else because I had to do the scratch voiceover tracks. But only in watching the finished episodes — and I just texted you this Taffy, for episode six — I am in awe of how meticulously crafted the whole thing actually is. It was all there on the page, but [I’m amazed] seeing the finished version, especially in episode six. That’s right at the moment the audience is getting a little tired of Toby’s bullshit, and his complaining and his whining. Then Libby is also kind of annoying in the beginning of her part of that episode. So you have Toby who is annoying, and Libby, a bit annoying. And then Libby becomes annoyed with Toby at the exact moment that the audience is doing the same thing.
Then the audience is in-step with Libby and how Libby is seeing Toby, because it’s after their argument. So everybody is on Libby’s side now, or they have the same perspective as Libby. We go on a whole journey with Libby in that episode. And then just when you think maybe she’s going to start talking about all the people in New York walking by in the park — boom! There’s Rachel. And then the next episode is like boom, boom, boom, boom, pyrotechnics Rachel! And all of it is positioned perfectly. I don’t know how a first-time showrunner does that. That’s absolute alchemy magic.
That’s a question for you, Taffy. How did you accomplish that?
Brodesser-Akner: First of all, there’s no reason to adapt something unless you’re loyal to the thing. But the real answer is that I had two very smart and experienced producing partners, Sarah Timberman and Susannah Grant — Lizzy worked with Sara on Masters of Sex and they’re both just legends of the industry. There was a time where what I knew was that we couldn’t make this into a movie, because you need a certain amount of time to settle into it — and I mean really settle in. I mean, there is no version of it where this could possibly be anything else. That’s the only way to possibly pull the rug out from people.
But I wanted one additional episode. One additional episode before we find out that Rachel was napping in the park. I wanted — and, I’m not kidding — between episodes six and seven to be just the Presidentrix musical, without any context. Which by the way, would have given you every clue. And my very smart producing partners and the network said, “Let’s just do the story.”
Caplan: And maybe not write an entire musical as well.
Brodesser-Akner: Exactly (laughs). But then this crazy thing happened. We had to do these table readings that would stop the set, because there were 40 people from the studio and network waiting for us, and so everyone got on Zoom, sometimes in their homes if they weren’t shooting that day, sometimes in their dressing room. And they were so much fun. I had a weird time processing them: “Oh my God, is this really happening to me?”
The seventh episode was supposed to be not the penultimate episode, but the third to last. And Claire Danes was home [and calling in for the table read]. She lost internet a couple of times; we lost internet a couple of times — it should have been a disaster. But after that Zoom table read, we left and I said, “We can’t ask an audience to stick around for two episodes after that.” (Laughs).
We had it scheduled that “Me Time” would be the sixth episode and then there would be seven and eight, and it would be dispersed differently. But her performance and just the bigness of that episode as its own discreet thing made it feel like the best thing we could do was to then land it. To take that information and then use it for the characters to land it. And, they did. As you know, the finale is like five movies in different parts. And these actors pulled it off in the most miraculous way. Even I, who could have gone on forever, feel that everybody’s moment is where their story is appropriate to end.
After that, I kind of couldn’t say goodbye to Claire. So I wrote a couple of scenes for her into the eighth episode. She asked to talk to me and she said, “Don’t do this. This isn’t in the book. You’re just doing this because you’re attached to me, and I’m attached to you. But, it’s OK.” Everyone knew in a way that I didn’t that we were not saying goodbye to each other. So, that’s what I want to say about the format. And no one knows those things.
Let’s talk about the ending. The show ends like the book, with Rachel coming back. But when I was watching the final scene, I had a Black Mirror moment. Libby has just revealed herself as an unreliable narrator, because she’s infused her own story into Toby and Rachel’s — and then she and Toby have this meta scene where she says she’s going to write a book and tell this story. Could the Rachel and Toby ending be invented by Libby, to give this story a good ending? I wondered if Libby was talking about herself because when Libby goes back to her husband (Josh Radnor), he says that she always comes back.
Brodesser-Akner: Lizzy, do you want to go first?
Caplan: Sure. The whole, “Is it real? Does Rachel really come back?” conversation. And, “If she does come back, do they reconcile?” Personally, I don’t care. And I’m pretty sure if I was just a viewer of the show, I also wouldn’t care. I’m very invested in these characters — it’s not a knock on the characters’ arc at all. It’s just, that’s not what it’s about to me. I see a fully realized version of both. Any version that happens with the two of them going forward would make sense to me and would be worth exploring. And I think we could do a good version of them getting back together; of them never getting back together. To me, the show is about bigger ideas than that.
But I also think how the ending of the show hopefully will work for people is that trying to figure out what does happen is going to be a very interesting question, and people will explore what they think happened. It will work 100 percent on that level. But just for me, it’s so beyond that answer. I remember when I was reading about the book that a lot of readers of the book have that question. “Do they get back together? What happens? What happens?” And I was thinking, “Guys, don’t you see what this is about? It’s about like, the whole fucking world!”
Brodesser-Akner: (Laughs). I’ll answer. When people debate this or wonder about it, it’s very romantic and hopeful. That’s why people do it. Because they need to know. I generally don’t answer this question, because I feel that it’s all there. But the thing that I’ll add now that we’re talking post-finale and post-book is that this was always a story about the whole world, as Lizzy says. It was a story about middle age and marriage and divorce, and getting older and nostalgia and lifelong friendship, and parenting and career and ambition. There’s no category of middle-class, middle-life that it isn’t about. But ultimately, Fleishman is a story about storytelling. And so the answer to that question is that it will be up to everybody to decide how Fleishman ends. I’m interested in that conversation.
Historically, when people ask me to speak at their book club…
Caplan: You can do that?
Brodesser-Akner: People asked me all the time, but I’ve stopped doing it because I realized my answers only disappointed or annoyed them. Reading a book is like eating. You can eat across from someone, but ultimately you’re eating alone. And, you’re reading alone. And this book that you bought is no longer mine; it’s yours. I’ve been surprised at how people don’t want what my answer is. They want to attain their answer. And they want to be able to ask the question. So out of kindness, I’m not answering it.
Caplan: I also think that, by the way, if people really like the show, I do recommend watching it again. Because God, we really told everybody everything from the beginning.
Brodesser-Akner: I’m not a subtle writer!
Caplan: It’s all there. But you don’t see it until the exact moment you’re supposed to see it.
[Editor’s note: At this moment, Brodesser-Akner puts on the googly-eyed glasses used as a prop in the series; a prop that shows up in both Rachel/Toby’s and Libby/Adam’s flashbacks.]
When Libby had the glasses on in the finale montage, that’s a moment where you go, “Wait, wasn’t Rachel wearing those in an earlier flashback”?
Caplan: If people really do adamantly ask the question about if they get back together or not, I don’t see how you see it as a happy ending. So, ok, they get back together and then, it’s just going to be more of them trudging through this stuff together. That’s the whole point. There is no happy ending (laughs).
Brodesser-Akner: It’s a great question. Again, it’s a story about storytelling. And that to me was how you ended a story about storytelling — with some storytelling. Or, the vast future of it. But, you’re right. Watch it again and you’ll probably see more. By the time I wrote the eighth episode, I understood that there had to be more in the show than there was in the book, because that was my education in adaptation. You go in hoping the actors will do things as well as you saw it in your head, and you have to leave room for them doing it better than you could have imagined. And you have to let that happen, or else you’ll miss it. You also have to rise to the occasion of the actors, the production designer, the costume designer, the set decorators, and everyone else who built this city from this thing you wrote. You have to help push it over the finish line with an understanding.
At first, when people watched this, they said what a loyal adaptation it was. I think the loyal adaptation was that I learned how to adapt, and what a show needs that a book cannot give you. And it’s those things that don’t exist in the book that are breadcrumbs or Easter eggs that were a delight to me that only came after I wrote the eighth episode. We were still shooting the fifth episode when I wrote the eighth, so there was plenty of time to go back and plant things. And we had incredible directors — Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Alice Wu and Shari Springer Berman and Robert Puccini — who took these episodes and made a visual language, along with the score by Caroline Shaw. It’s so not like any score I’ve ever heard. Now I see that the things they created, that I have nothing to do with, are as part of Fleishman as Lizzy’s voice, that apartment, Jesse’s ticks, Claire’s chill — and by “chill” I mean her brr — and Adam Brody, how could we neglect to talk about what a revelation he is in this? He took a character that could have so easily been played as a cliché and was made into a real person. And Josh Radnor, who showed up for a role that I think of as huge, but that an actor has to have an imagination to see its importance and also wait to the end.
Everyone here, including me, had to wait for everybody to see the whole of it. And, we text each together. There were little clues this might take off, and then I feel like after the sixth aired, that’s when the hum I was hearing started to feel like a roar. And then [after episode seven], of course, I cried myself to sleep and asked my husband to look into trauma therapy for me. (Laughs.) People would come to me and [ask if I was OK] and I would say, “I’m fine.” Because Fleishman is like the movie The Ring. Where you watch this video and unless you pass it onto someone, you die in seven days? That’s what I think about Fleishman. I think, “I already passed it on, I’m not going to die from this.” And also, seeing how everyone relates to it was really nice.
Caplan: I think it’s important to note that this is what a Jewish person gives people for Christmas: trauma therapy.
Brodesser-Akner: It’s really the most thoughtful gift!
Well Lizzy, you said it’s not a happy ending for Toby and Rachel, but…
Brodesser-Akner: No; she says she doesn’t know.
Caplan: I don’t think there’s a version of them riding off into the sunset and having no problems from here on out.
Right. But, how do you view Libby’s ending? Because that felt … nice.
Caplan: Yeah, it does feel nice. What Libby learns, and hopefully what the audience gets through Libby, is something we talk about a lot. There are a lot of lines in the voiceover about these unanswerable questions that aren’t even worth asking because if you ask them, you’ll go mad. And that’s kind of it. Which sounds dark and sad. But to me, I watch the show and I go, “Oh, wow, how sad and beautiful is it to be a person? To be alive?” And it is all of these things.
And I guess the other thing that I feel Libby learns is that the only way through all of this mess, through all of these questions that really have no answers, is through compassion. That’s the lesson: Let’s just be a bit more compassionate towards each other; think about where the other person might be coming from. Even though there are so many good things that come out of their lack of compassion. There’s an article or study about how people bond through gossip, and I don’t know if our three friends in this — Libby, Seth and Toby — would have connected so immediately again if they didn’t have this common enemy in Rachel. They needed Rachel to be a dick to re-form their bond. And there are a million examples of those types of things within this show. But ultimately the lesson is: that ain’t it. It’s just not the way. But it’s a journey to get there, boy is it. And I think it’s a journey that once you arrive at it, you’re going to have to learn it again a few months later.
If people ask if Libby will stay married, would you answer?
Caplan: I think Libby is going to stay married, yes.
Brodesser-Akner: One of the many lessons of Fleishman is that we are very much the same when we’re old as we are when we’re young. And this I will say, that Libby’s husband seems to love her and know her. He’s not asking her to be different. He’s asking to be involved in her struggle. The thing that he says at the very end — “You always come back” — begs the question of, is this her pattern? Is there another version of this that happened last summer, or the summer before, or the summer before? Because there are those kinds of marriages.
There’s that Tolstoy quote from Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I actually think all divorces are the same. Back to your first question, I wanted to tell this story because there was a pattern. All the divorces were the same; they all had the same foundation. They all had the same list of events. They all spoke about each other in the same way. And that gets a writer thinking. But I also think that their unhappiness, their separate unhappinesses, are because all marriages are different. And the reason we all struggle, and the reason we divorce probably long after the thought first occurs to us, is not because of what it will do. But it’s because we have to first contend with the question of: Is this what marriage is? And, am I supposed to tolerate it for infinity? And there are different answers to that question, but it takes a long time for the question to occur to you and then to figure out the answer.
Caplan: It’s in the show. And I’ve said it to multiple friends — because I just turned 40 and a lot of people are thinking about getting divorced, and everything that made you write the book is what I’m seeing now. The amount of times I’ve said to them, “Well, maybe you should watch Fleishman Is in Trouble before making this decision” (laughs).
Brodesser-Akner: Good marketing, Lizzy!
Caplan: “Check out my television show first!” I know, it’s so absurd.
It could save some therapy bills — eight hours, at least.
Brodesser-Akner: And don’t forget about the $13 to buy the book.
Caplan: Libby has the line. It’s in there. Libby has the realization that if you get rid of this person, then maybe everything will be great. The actual line was, “If I just excise this person, maybe I can be me again.” But you can’t be you again, because you can never be young again. And that’s what this is all about. You cannot go back to a place of nothing but potential; that doesn’t exist for you anymore, that is no longer an option. So I think if Libby came to that realization, which she did, then there would be no reason for her to leave her wonderful husband who loves her. Because she’s not going to get the thing that she thinks that she wants without her husband.
Brodesser-Akner: Or, it’s not even about her husband. He was just a comorbidity.
Caplan: She’s not going to get the thing she wants with her husband removed. You delete the husband part, you still don’t get to be 22 with nothing but fun ahead of you.
There is a whole next stage to explore about what comes after midlife crisis for all of these characters. Do you have a season two in there?
Brodesser-Akner: It’s a limited series.
That means nothing in this era of peak TV.
Brodesser-Akner: I know, it means nothing! But we are superstitious Jews, and we don’t talk about things like that. (Laughs.)
Is there more story you want to tell with these people?
Brodesser-Akner: This is what I’ll say about these people. I know from experience now, because I’ve written my second book, that the first group of people are the people closest to you. They are people that live under your skin. I have no less cliché way of saying that. And the second book you write is just a millimeter outside of that. I would never want to ruin the ending of this, but the question to me is: If I could spend more time with the people I’m closest to now, understanding that I’ll probably never see them again, or I’ll never be with them again except in retrospect, how could I say no to doing that? If you build people to be real, of course there’s more story.
Libby’s husband, Adam, what was he doing while she was away? I don’t know a lot of men who stay the course. We know that he’s miserable being a lawyer. And Seth is being investigated by the FCC. And most of all, if there’s anything we’ve learned from the seventh episode it’s that Rachel is a few blocks away, has two kids that she loves very much, and an ex-husband that she has to eventually probably deal with. And, Libby? What happens when she publishes her book is a great question. Because it probably didn’t go as smoothly as you think, when you write about your friends. My characters are not based on direct real people, they are the amalgamations of stories I’ve heard and luckily the only thing that mitigates that as a problem in my life is the amount of people I’ve never met who think the book is about them, or the show is about them (laughs).
I want to see Libby as the self-actualized published author having to deal with the next round of life coming her way.
Caplan: Or, your real life Taffy, right? So then, you know what happens next in your actual life.
Brodesser-Akner: I do know what happens next in my real life! The thing I keep hearing from the actors is they’re getting text messages from people they haven’t heard from in a while, and that feels like a good thing. And I am, too.
Caplan: Listen, I’m very proud of you, and I’m very happy. You deserve it all.
Interview edited for clarity.