Sharp Writing, Strong Performances Distinguish FX Character Study

Dec 13, 2022

FX adapts The New York Times writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s 2019 debut novel “Fleishman is in Trouble” into an engaging mini-series about the difficulty of change and how human beings bounce off each other, often sending people in directions they never expected. Some of the characters may feel a bit shallow—their problems are arguably the kind of selfish concerns that most people in the world would kill to have—but that’s embedded in the intelligent writing and a cast that understands these people don’t have to be likable to feel genuine or be interesting.
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Toby Fleishman (Jesse Eisenberg) is a successful New York doctor, although never quite successful or ambitious enough for his wife Rachel (Claire Danes). That’s one of many reasons that they are recently divorced, plunging Toby into a world of anonymous hook-ups via dating apps. It’s a shallow existence, sure, but he’s enjoying the dating pool when Rachel suddenly drops their kids—11-year-old Hannah (Meara Mahoney Gross) and 9-year-old Solly (Maxim Swinton)—off at his apartment a day early and heads off for a yoga retreat. When the weekend ends, Rachel doesn’t return.
Don’t worry—“Fleishman is in Trouble” is not some “Mr. Mom” thing about a divorced dad getting to know his kids for the first time. At first, Fleishman struggles to balance his job, robust personal life, and the children, but the show has loftier aspirations. Rachel’s disappearance basically unmoors Toby from what he thinks is going to happen in his life: he will co-parent as much and as amicably as possible, continue to rise the professional ladder of his career, fool around with strangers he meets in apps, and get free from his wife’s passive-aggressive behavior. But in Rachel’s absence, Toby questions not just where he’s going but how he got here as the show spins through flashbacks to both the good and bad days in the Fleishman marriage. If Toby is going to figure out how to get through this, he has to figure out how he got here in the first place.
Fleishman’s journey is narrated by one of his old friends with whom he reunites post-divorce, a journalist named Libby (the phenomenal Lizzy Caplan), who tells Toby’s story in the style of a profile piece that she would write for her magazine. It allows for sharp criticism of Toby to serve as a backdrop for his journey, as Libby can often see through his selfish bullshit. At the same time, Toby’s unloading of his baggage on Libby, and another old friend named Seth (Adam Brody) spins them off in other directions, too. They both start falling back into the old habits that often come when we reunite with people we knew when we were nothing but promise and potential. Libby has a family (and a husband played by Josh Radnor), but she ends up wanting to spend more time-solving Toby’s problems than facing her own, even as she knows he’s being ridiculous. Seth is the other extreme, the perpetual bachelor who Toby can use to get into clubs and live the kind of single life he gave up after he got married right out of medical school. Toby sees a happy family in Libby and a happy single guy in Seth but soon discovers that neither of them has the perfect life that he’s so convinced has eluded him.
Brodesser-Akner adapts her own novel—expertly directed by a team that includes Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini (“American Splendor”) and Valerie Faris & Jonathan Dayton (“Little Miss Sunshine”)—and the writing is alternately remarkably insightful on a universal level while remaining rooted in specific characters. Toby, Libby, Rachel, and Seth aren’t meant to be symbols for anything beyond what they are as human beings: people who have learned the hard way that life doesn’t turn out the way you want it to every time. “There are questions a person shouldn’t ask because they’re unanswerable,” says Libby late in the series, and the show is about people asking those difficult questions that only open up other impossible questions. Why is life unfair? Why does so much of the world value the wrong things? Why does one person seem happier than another in the same position? Why are so many people trapped in lives that they don’t enjoy? Why do we project so much of ourselves onto people without really seeing them? How did I get here?!?!
The writing’s overall quality would be nothing without the show’s ace casting. Eisenberg leans into his neurotic screen persona a bit more than the character arguably needed, but it keeps the momentum going when Toby’s life really starts to fall apart in ways he could never expect. Most importantly, Eisenberg sells the lived-in quality of Toby’s life, especially the history of these relationships. We believe he’s been eroded by a loveless marriage, and yet he avoids turning Toby into too much of a sad sack. Toby is kind of a jerk, the person who has devoted his life to saving others but can’t bother to really care about the people around him. Danes doesn’t have as big a part as early episodes might promise, but she’s excellent in the extended flashback to the courtship and early marriage, showing how people can pull away from each other in ways they would never predict.
While everyone here is solid, the standout is Lizzy Caplan, who not only nails every choice in the narration of the show—she can somehow sound both concerned and critical of Toby in the same line reading—but really elevates the show once it becomes more about her in the back half of the season. She’s always been a very good actress, but this might be her best work, deftly portraying how Toby’s trajectory pushes her into those questions that she knows are unanswerable. Just because we know we shouldn’t ask those questions doesn’t stop us from doing so. It is a funny, heartbreaking, incredible performance.
Some will never get past the sense that these are spoiled, privileged people complaining about having too much sex, money, and opportunities that they blow. That’s understandable, but there is still heartbreak and relatable, universal drama beneath that privileged veneer. In fact, it’s when people start to question the value of all of those hollow things that are supposed to produce happiness that truth can be found. Even if they have to go through trouble first. [A-]

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