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There’s almost a tradition, when approaching divorce in popular fiction, to treat the decomposition of a marriage as a mystery. What once was good now is bad. Whodunnit?
Usually, it’s a trick question. In the real world, assigning blame in some divorces is a breeze, but that’s bad drama. In your typical divorce mystery, there’s usually a parade of shared complicity, Agatha Christie-style.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s 2019 book Fleishman Is in Trouble is partially a divorce whodunnit with a very Jewish, Upper East Side accent. But it’s just as much an exploration of the divorce whodunnit genre: a deconstruction of blame and recriminations and of unhappiness (and perhaps of happiness, somewhat) at a certain age, in a certain income bracket. I loved Brodesser-Akner’s prose and her imperfect characters, but I found the structure of the whodunnit frequently to be stifling and inevitable.
Brodesser-Akner’s new eight-episode Fleishman limited series, produced by FX for Hulu, is one of the closest book-to-screen adaptations I can remember in terms of tone and incident. But in jumping media, a lot of the mystery has been sapped, the twistiness devalued. For me, that made for an often more satisfying story. Hulu’s Fleishman Is in Trouble is funny, sad and relatable. If it isn’t surprising on top of that, it hardly matters because the ensemble is so superb.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Toby Fleishman, newly divorced, settling into his 40s and wondering what’s next. Toby, a liver doctor for reasons that are mostly symbolic, has been shocked to discover that on the New York City dating market, he’s suddenly a catch and, thanks to apps, he’s enjoying a buffet of casual sex. An intended summer of hollow, enjoyable kink is interrupted when, out of nowhere, his theater agent ex-wife Rachel (Claire Danes) drops off his kids (Maxim Swinton’s Solly and Meara Mahoney Gross) for an unscheduled weekend and … vanishes.
Filled with confusion, rage and disappointment at the interruptus of his planned coitus, Toby is forced to confront the past he believed was happy, a present that’s suddenly and unexpectedly unmoored and a future that once seemed limitless and now seems to be a black void. And he’s doing it all at once in a story that evades any strict chronology and makes sure to include an explanation of the “block universe” theory — loosely positing that all things that happen or have ever happened exist and are equally real all at once — to tie things together in yet another piece of literary symbolism.
Offering solace and advice are two of Toby’s closest friends from college, a period he looks back on as all infinite potential. Seth (Adam Brody) is clinging desperately to his youth, resisting commitment or any traces of growing up. In contrast, Libby (Lizzy Caplan) left a writing career behind to raise kids in suburbia with hubby Adam (Josh Radnor). By some definitions, they’re all living variations on a dream of adulthood, but are any of them content? Nuh-uh.
Fleishman Is in Trouble is narrated by Libby, whose voiceover steers, inflects and dominates the story. On the page, Libby has a distinctive voice — snarky, laced with judgment, a mixture of wise and clueless — but for a while it could almost belong to any third-person source. Read with precision comic timing and a rainbow of emotions by Caplan, the voiceover — still almost word-for-word from Brodesser-Akner’s tome — instantly marks Libby as at least a co-protagonist, if not the series’ hero. Because of our immediate empathy for Libby, played in front of the camera by Caplan with a joyful and perfectly incredulous dishevelment, there’s no sense of discovery or revelation in the character’s unveiling — just the pleasure of watching a great actor in a wardrobe of great, branded t-shirts playing nuanced shades of “normal.”
A similar absence of “surprise” comes from the casting of Eisenberg, a committed expert in embracing the nettlesome discomfort of characters who are as alienated from themselves as from the world around them. Toby is initially presented as admirable mostly by virtue of not being the parent abandoning two kids in the dead of night. But that doesn’t mean you ever, for a single second, doubt that he shares culpability in the outcome of his marriage. Eisenberg makes Toby unapologetically, but never only, flawed.
Throw in Brody, finding the lonely heart beneath Seth’s happily bro-y exterior, and Danes, unsurprisingly remarkable in the late-season episodes focused on Rachel’s deceptive strength and simmering fragility — yes, the Maria Callas of TV tears gets to do a little sobbing — and you have an exceptional quartet. Brodesser-Akner and the show’s directors (Valerie Faris & Jonathan Dayton and Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini helm seven of eight) treat their cast with the clearest of eyes. Everybody’s a hero. Everybody’s a villain. Mostly, everybody’s a mess, including characters well played by Swinton, Gross and Radnor (though the latter is reveling in the rare role as the least self-absorbed, least insufferable person in sight).
I don’t know if Brodesser-Akner has cracked anything unique about the state of modern marriage, but her observations are infused with an undeniable specificity. You don’t need to have found irritation and gratification in a Philip Roth novel or experienced the stifling peer pressure of a Jewish summer camp or lived in a borderline-obscene doorman building near Central Park to understand what these characters are all going through. If the story’s extreme insularity feels like a reason to laugh at them for a few episodes, you may ultimately find yourself crying with them, or for them, as the end approaches.
Maybe the opening of the door for that sentiment points to a small flaw in the way Fleishman plays on-screen. It’s a little softer than the book, and while Brodesser-Akner’s points about voyeuristic judgment — especially how it impacts men and women in very different ways — remain intact, they don’t land as scathingly as they do in the novel. Having four actors whom viewers have been trained to like, dating back to juvenile roles, at the center of the story insulates their characters from the harshest of authorial intentions or viewer perceptions.
But maybe that’s just a deviation and not a flaw at all. You shouldn’t come away from Fleishman Is in Trouble with a singular assessment of the perpetrator or victim, a clear image of who’s to blame. This is a series about understanding instead of indicting in a way that’s poignant and probing at once.
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