Fleishman Is in Trouble review – Jesse Eisenberg unravels in a smart comedy series

Fleishman Is in Trouble, FX on Hulu’s smart adaptation of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s 2019 novel, is an anxious series. Sure, Toby Fleishman (Jesse Eisenberg) is stressed about his ex-wife Rachel’s (Claire Danes) disappearance – she dropped off their two kids a day early, left on a surprise yoga retreat and then went MIA. But what non-book readers may assume to be the premise of a thriller – what happened to Rachel? – will find dread that’s far more mundane. Toby assumes his ex, a chilly, hard-charging theater agent with a fittingly blunt bob, to be acting self-interested as usual. To him, her disappearance is less sinister than cynical, and very annoying – he’s trying to be a good doctor, working full-time at an esteemed hospital, and now he has to be a full-time single dad.

Mundane, yet still potent. A frenetic Whac-A-Mole of everyday stressors propels Fleishman Is in Trouble. Who’s going to pick up the kids from camp? What if your kid hates you? What if you impulsively fire the nanny, as Toby does in one of many fits of misdirected righteousness. Where did the time go? As several characters ask throughout the series: how did we get here?

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How these questions land for you – somewhere between cliched, provocative but abstract, or too close to home – likely depends on one’s family situation and affinity for the novel. Brodesser-Akner, a New York Times Magazine writer, penned all but one episode; the result is a sharp and faithful rendering of the book, down to the digressive, acidic narration by a character molded in the author’s image. Libby Slater (Lizzy Caplan), Toby’s friend from a college year abroad in Israel, is a writer turned stay-at-home New Jersey mom whose own stuck-ness pokes through, then takes over, her account of the Fleishmans’ divorce. It’s the summer of 2016, as indicated by the presence of several Hillary yard signs (a nod to the double standards of female ambition that permeates the series – have it until it’s threatening, have it but also be everything), and things are getting weird.

The series, executive produced by Susannah Grant, Carl Beverly and Sarah Timberman, is, as Libby puts it, “about everything”. It’s a meta moment – she’s a magazine writer who plans to write a book – that doubles as an admission. Among the everything: the humbling stress of parenting, variations of wine mom T-shirts, the bottomless oneupmanship of wealth, sexism in publishing, the strangeness of app-based dating after a longterm relationship, the pitfalls of kids with phones. The series throws a lot at viewers in eight 45- to over 60-minute episodes, veering between sharply observed emotional dynamics and sitcom-y, unconvincing generalizations.

Brodesser-Akner has specialized in teasing out surprising dimensions and emotions from famous people in otherwise extremely unrelatable positions (Tom Hanks, Gwyneth Paltrow, Nicki Minaj). Here she turns her insight to the bedrooms and limp bachelor pads of a different rarefied type: striving Upper East Siders, the kind who strategize preschool waiting lists and off-handedly book trips to Vail. Or, in Toby’s case, resents it all – Rachel’s greedy career, her class anxiety, her networking on behalf of 11-year-old Hannah (Meara Mahoney-Gross) and 9-year-old Solly (Maxim Swinton), her old money friends. He relays these frustrations to Libby and their third college friend, a finance Peter Pan named Seth (Adam Brody) in Sorkin-esque rants which seem unnatural outside a high-pressure work setting.

Once acclimated to the pace, however, the series makes a good case that there’s nothing chill about the million little cuts of a separation, or raising children, or being married, or being 41. TV shows are a cascade of decisions, and Fleishman Is in Trouble plays like an accumulation of good ones: commitment to Libby’s tricky but essential voiceover (credit to Kaplan, who manages to sound convivial rather than mannered); superb casting; a tone self-aware enough to suggest there’s another shoe to drop in the season’s back half, more than one version of the Fleishmans’ divorce and Rachel’s character. Visual cues which evoke the floor falling out, or the haze of postpartum depression, or the dizzying carnival ride of app hookups.

All of that adds up to a smart watch, if not necessarily a moving one. Every scene between Toby and Rachel is someone’s version of the story – for the first half, all Toby’s – which makes for an interesting dissection of a split but difficult to emotionally invest in either party, nor understand what made it work in the first place. That’s no fault of Eisenberg and Danes, who are convincing in all versions of their characters. He toggles between wounded, nurturing and cutting, almost too convincingly dorky for all these women allegedly hungry for him on the apps. Danes is the real performance reward of the series, chipping away the ice to reveal a tangle of vulnerability, insecurity, turmoil, love.

Fleishman Is in Trouble front-loads divorce, but is ultimately and most unnervingly about ageing. It’s strongest, particularly in the two episodes before a finale too corny for the thicket of complications before it, when depicting the feeling of being farther down the pinball course of life than you imagined, no longer young but still you. How do you relate to that former person? To your friends? To your spouse? Of the series’ many slippery questions, those stick. We’re all protagonists fumbling in the dark, and that’s genuinely daunting.

  • Fleishman Is in Trouble starts on 17 November on Hulu in the US and Disney+ in Australia with a UK date to be announced