Fleishman Is in Trouble is compelling, clever, and at times fascinating, breathing new life into the tired divorce drama with complex writing and nuanced performances.
This review of Fleishman Is in Trouble season 1 is spoiler-free.
The divorce drama is nothing new, but a new interpretation of the divorce drama is a welcome respite from achingly miserable stuff like Marriage Story and Scenes From A Marriage. Fleishman Is in Trouble, a new FX on Hulu series adapted from the same-titled book by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, is a refreshingly modern and proudly unusual take on the formula, integrating a distinctly contemporary dating landscape and a notably lopsided perspective into an otherwise familiar tale of life having to awkwardly restart in middle age.
The series is named after Toby Fleishman (Jesse Eisenberg), a New York doctor who has just come out of a 15-year nightmare marriage to his wife, Rachel (Claire Danes), who, at least in the first two episodes, is depicted as being so awful that she has made their kids Solly (Maxim Jasper Swinton) and Hannah (Meara Mahoney Gross) – the latter especially – equally awful by sheer osmosis. Rachel, you see, is successful enough that Toby’s $300,000-a-year medical career seems like poverty, and the poky flat he’s living in post-separation is, to them, indistinguishable from a cardboard box under an overpass.
Toby is a specialist in the human liver, and what he most admires about it is its resilience; its ability to adapt and heal under great strain, and – perhaps most crucially – to eventually forget how much it was wronged in the first place. You don’t need me to draw the parallels here. But Toby – unusually for an Eisenberg character – is also a bit of a ladies’ man, and one of the first things he realizes after discovering the world of app-based dating is that he’s seen as a particularly fine catch by New York’s middle-aged singles scene.
When we meet Toby, he seems okay. He has recently hooked back up with some old friends, Libby (Lizzy Caplan) and Seth (Adam Brody), and is visibly excited by his new romantic possibilities, which are mostly rendered in a montage of sex scenes with different, often quite bizarre – at least in their appetites – women. Crucially, though, Toby remains the same throughout. At work, while dating, and with his friends, he is recognizably the same person, even while his personal life continues to be drastically upended and punctuated by new or at least new-ish experiences. This, I think, is vital.
And it’s vital because Toby seems like a nice guy. He cares about his patients at work. He mentions offhandedly that he wants to date older women, so he doesn’t inadvertently waste the time of anyone who’s hoping to start a family. He seems respectful to the women he dates, and they seem to respect him in turn. This stands in deliberately stark contrast to what we see and hear of Rachel. What we see of her in flashbacks is spiteful and superficial. Toby is so used to her pointless power-plays that when she drops the kids off one weekend and he later can’t get in touch with her, it takes him several days to realize that she seems to have disappeared.
What has potentially happened to Rachel forms a mystery, but the show doesn’t really dwell on it. Of more immediate importance seems to be how her sudden absence chafes against Toby’s new dating life and career opportunities. He’s seen as being very patient and understanding with his awful children, even as, on some level, he is becoming prone to throwing money at them and quietly resenting their presence. This isn’t to vilify Toby so much as to make a point that is reiterated in various forms elsewhere about how even people with seemingly perfect and admirable lives can come to see them as personal prisons.
Take Libby, for instance, a former journalist who never made good on her own dreams and has instead become a stay-at-home mom. She loves her husband and her kids, but it’s no accident that she actually narrates Toby’s story, seeing in him a wealth of exciting potential and personal fulfillment that she thinks has been closed off to her by her ostensibly happy family life. Seth is the same. He’s a single free spirit, but while the other characters see the upside in that, he feels the absence of the authentic human connections that both share with their significant others and children. To the other two, Seth seems free. But to Seth, he’s just lonely.
Thanks to Brodesser-Akner, who created the show and wrote seven of the eight episodes, these nuanced performances are married perfectly to complex writing. This is a deeply introspective and contemplative story that thankfully doesn’t fall for the trap of being maudlin and tedious, exploring how we fit together and fall apart in a way that is truthful, funny, and perhaps even hopeful.
You can stream Fleishman Is in Trouble season 1 with a subscription to Hulu.