Fleishman Is In Trouble may be set in the present. (There are jokes about dating on the “apps” and Hamilton, and oblique references to the Orange Nightmare abound.) But FX’s latest show is a throwback, situated in—or stymied by—the 1970s and ’80s, among rich Jews in Upper Manhattan. Horny intellectual Dr. Toby Fleishman (Jesse Eisenberg) is going through a divorce from his icy, careerist wife, Rachel (Claire Danes), and is rewarding himself for years under her thumb by collecting sexual conquests all over town, mostly through his phone. Also, he wants to be a good dad. If you’ve read any of the “Great Male Narcissists” or binged New Hollywood movies on the Criterion Channel, you’ve likely met someone like Toby or his best friend Seth (Adam Brody), who gives off strong Elliott Gould-in-his-prime vibes. Don’t worry, the show is well aware of this. Even the design of the show’s poster invokes the cover art of Erica Jong’s 1973 Fear Of Flying, best known for coining the term “zipless fuck”—in an era before Tinder or Grindr, no less.
A throwback is not a matter of leaning on cliches and tired tales. In fact, “throwing back” is a delicate maneuver. To do so artfully, the showrunner and creative team must dip into an old sensibility, a way of moving through the world that exceeds the trappings of set design and scripted slang. iPhones may be everywhere, but Fleishman still feels firmly rooted in an ancient past, like Woody Allen ancient. The throwback reminds us that, while the material world may be ever in flux, the stories we tell ourselves are stubbornly static.
Fleishman Is In Trouble is a brilliant meditation on those stories: the ones we read and watch that shape us as people, the ones we share with others, never mind the ones we tell ourselves. It can all come out looking like a giant, never-ending cross-over episode. (Remember those? From the heyday of network television? Anyway.)
The series, created by Fleishman novelist Taffy Brodesser-Akner, faithfully translates the structure of the book. (As it turns out, there are three people in trouble, not just the Fleishman of the title.) But the show is also attuned to its literary inheritance in other ways: Fleishman’s New York City is a world of words. Signs, posters, and graphic T-shirts signal all the readings and misreadings to follow. And unlike the elitists in the first season of The White Lotus, these elitists do read, even if the material is unfortunate. While Toby wastes time in a Manhattan bookstore, he leafs through his favorite novel, Archer Sylvan’s 1979 Decoupling, “a Gonzo account of a year in the life of a divorced man … It called out women for changing the rules on men with no warning, because of their vapid women’s lib and their stupid sexual awakenings … What can I say? The book hadn’t aged well.”
These words are spoken by the show’s narrator, Toby’s college friend, Libby Slater Epstein (Lizzy Caplan), a men’s magazine staff writer turned stay-at-home mother of two. A lover of Archer Sylvan and herself, Libby is different from the other girls and proud of it. She watches Toby and Seth with no small amount of jealousy, as they drink and wander the city and hook up, while she goes through the motions with her devoted, disapproving husband, a Ted Mosby type played by Josh Radnor. Early in the series, Libby’s husband remarks, as a neat piece of trivia, “When you’re in space, no matter where you are, you feel like you’re in the center.” It should be noted that, in this moment, Libby is wearing an Apollo 11 graphic tee tucked into her high-waisted jeans. Mark this moment: It rewards close reading.
Fleishman Is In Trouble is a thriller for people more interested in feelings than plot twists, with a passing comment about space travel constituting emotional foreshadowing. The story of the show is quite minimal: The good doctor’s ex-wife drops the kids off at his sad-dad, single-guy apartment and just … doesn’t come back. Is she really at that exclusive yoga retreat, or has something else happened? Is she incapacitated or delinquent? Is she dead, or should she drop in that general direction?
It takes the length of the premiere episode to arrive at that hook, but, after that, the show races, a Manhattan mystery that is gripping without being gasp-inducing, as you follow around an ensemble of regrettable characters you will come to care about. The performances anchor this non-plotty plot, an ensemble of well-cast actors putting in their best. Claire Danes is in her wheelhouse as a hyper-competent genius who is barely dealing, while Jesse Eisenberg is practiced at moving between sympathetic and repugnant registers. They are both good, and if you know the novel at all, you know they will be. The surprise is, perhaps, their chemistry and how well the show captures not just the falling out of love but the falling in too.
And while Adam Brody brings undeniable charm to his role, with a whiff of melancholy to boot, the standout and not-so-secret star is Caplan, imbuing Libby with the wit of a Nora Ephron and the tomboy appeal of a Stepford-era Paula Prentiss. Caplan has always aced playing the smartest person in the room who manages to be dead wrong about everything that matters. Vulnerable without being sentimental, Libby possesses a well of self-loathing so deep that it almost neutralizes her loathing for others. Almost.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner came to national attention with her hilarious, insightful profile of Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop for The New York Times. As in that article, as in the novel, and now, in the show, Brodesser-Akner takes no prisoners. (Libby is Brodesser-Akner’s stand-in, akin to Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman in the Zuckerman Bound series. As with everything in Fleishman Is In Trouble, this is on purpose.) Neither the novel nor the show is mean, but compassion is neutrally distributed as a matter of narrative, rather than moral, justice.
It is not a perfect series. The last two episodes are too expository and too earnest, almost sentimental, in their treatment of the very midlife crisis tropes that the show, until then, sent up to great effect. There is a kind of post-modern unraveling of the story in its final moments, earned but a touch too familiar, reminiscent of Greta Gerwig’s 2019 re-imagining of Little Women (or, for that matter, the finale of The Dick Van Dyke Show). It is hard to conclude a show that is, by its own account, “about everything,” but Fleishman offers a little too much everything on some of its themes and plots and too little closure on others.
Still, the show preaches forbearance and non-judgment, and savvy viewers will be rewarded by heeding its advice. These eight episodes and the characters in them are doing their best, and Fleishman’s best is far better than most. Fleishman Is In Trouble is a sharp, fierce, and funny adaptation of a truly great novel. And, for what it’s worth, it does what a throwback should: It reminds us of why we keep returning to the same stories, even when they stop making sense.
Fleishman Is In Trouble premieres November 17 on Hulu.