The television series Fleishman is in trouble begins upside down, with the camera hovering above an inverted Manhattan skyline – chunky brick buildings in the top half of the frame, hazy blue skies below. It’s an appropriately destabilizing introduction to a show that constantly pulls the rug out from under our feet. The show is untrustworthy, in the best way: it holds back, obscures, and involves until it’s not. The initial target is Toby Fleishman (played by Jesse Eisenberg), a newly divorced Upper East Side hepatologist whose recently downloaded dating app produces more lifeless nudes per hour than Bernini’s in Rome. Toby’s ex-wife, Rachel (Claire Danes), has her kids locked up in her apartment and fled to an upstate yoga retreat. Toby is angry; he has a job too, Rachelthough it’s his much more lucrative career as a talent agent that has shaped the family so far.
If you’ve read the novel it’s based on, by the New York Times Review Editor-in-Chief Taffy Brodesser-Akner, you surely know that things are more complicated than they appear. The tone can be pleasantly light-hearted, the jokes sharp as daggers – a woman’s husband, we are told, “didn’t not have a photo of him next to a dead giraffe and a living Trump son. But as the story unfolds, it reveals its construction, layer by layer. Which stories, the series wonders, are people more inclined to listen to? Which version of the truth do we inherently favor without realizing it?
Flemish explores these questions primarily through the narration of Libby (Lizzy Caplan), a college friend of Toby’s whose presence is gradually gaining in weight. It is Libby’s diegetic voice that describes Toby’s confusion at finding himself – after 15 years of marriage – more desirable than he ever was as a bachelor. Slyly, the show suggests how effectively sex has been defined in masculine terms, to the point that short and neurotic Toby – Eisenberg plays him as flat and bilious on and off – is overwhelmed with explicit overtures, as if he was the Harry Styles of the midlife Manhattanite. (The dating app dynamics suddenly seem less benign when Brodesser-Akner, who also wrote the TV adaptation, applies them to a younger generation.)
[Read: The exquisite pain of monogamous life]
Libby, a disgruntled reporter also in her early 40s who quit her chronically frustrating job as a writer at a men’s magazine, has an existential malaise herself, though Toby never notices it. She came to realize that as a woman, anything she writes will always be a woman story, as opposed to a human and universal thrill. The show is set in the summer of 2016, against the backdrop of the presidential election, and it sporadically pokes at the branded and ineffectual activism of that moment. people wear I AM WITH HER tee-shirts; one of Libby’s essays is included in a collection titled Dawn of the tough guys; Rachel represents an artist who wrote a hamilton-like smash called Presidentrixwhich nods to literature’s recent compulsion to rewrite classic stories featuring male protagonists from the perspective of a sidelined female character.
It’s all funny and clever and ironically detached until, in the seventh of eight episodes, we see someone else’s version of the events leading up to Toby and Rachel’s divorce, which turns out to be devastating. So devastating, in fact, that you might wonder why so much of the story thus far has been spent with Toby boring and obsessing over himself, his sick patients, and his rambunctious children. That’s where the timing comes in: 2019 might not seem so long ago, but the years since the coronavirus pandemic began have done a tremendous job of disproving Libby’s theory (and Brodesser-Akner) that stories of sad and suffering women must be a Trojan horse in being – wrapped up in larger accounts of existing men. Maternal abandonment in particular, and the question of why a woman would give the finger to the biological imperative and abandon her children, has occupied all sorts of beautiful and unconventional stories lately. In FlemishRachel’s story is so significant – and so engagingly portrayed by Danes – that when it comes to light, everything else pales in comparison.
[Read: The redemption of the bad mother]
It’s not quite fair. So much of this show, like the book, is compelling, especially if you take it layer by layer. There’s the meta element of seeing three actors (Danes, Caplan and Adam Brody as Toby’s friend Seth) who all rose to fame in different cult teen dramas and are now having midlife crises. on screen, as if we viewers didn’t feel old enough already. There’s the recurring relevance of the liver, an organ that we’re repeatedly told is capable of regenerating itself, like Toby in his new sexual quarantine. There’s the way the show continually tricks us into praising Toby for taking care of his children on his own, as if that were a remarkable feat for a father instead of the obvious and totally unwarranted obligation of every mother.
Watching Fleishman is in trouble, you can sometimes resent her insinuation that people need to be tricked to find women’s experiences fascinating. But a lot, again, depends on perspective. The structure of our stories is broken, claimed the original book. The show, because it has to strictly adhere to an eight-episode format and television conventions, sometimes feels like it’s indulging in old patterns more than upending them. But its casting is so compelling and its truths so stark when they stick with you that it doesn’t really matter. There are enough of them that you are bound to find something that resonates. There are enough facets to the story that it surely feels like it speaks to you and you alone.