4 out of 5
Created by: Taffy Brodesser-Akner
Marriage, children, divorce and post-separation dating, told from a male point of view by a female narrator. It’s an interesting wrinkle on what would otherwise be a standard romcom-adjacent / middle-age crisis tale, brought to life on screen by Jesse Eisenberg and Claire Danes as the married and separated couple, Toby and Rachel Fleishman, and Lizzy Caplan as the narrator – Toby’s college friend, Libby, with whom he reconvenes after the fraught dissolution of his marriage. The script for the 8 episode miniseries was written by the author of the book of the same name, Taffy Brodesser-Akner; the show is partially directed by Little Miss Sunshine’s Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris; these are further behind-the-camera wrinkles which suggest we’ve more at hand than some millennial meet-cute mash-up.
Indeed, the visual style of Fleishman – almost always starting with an upside down shot; allowing for very organic flows between its scenes, nothing overwrought – delivers on these wrinkles, avoiding a twee presentation; showcasing its actors and the situations the story puts them in. The dialogue does not go for poignancy, and is often willing to linger in uncertainty instead, which is especially uncommon in media of this type, which often wants to complain about relationships but then tell us how love and children save everything.
This is, absolutely, the strong backbone of the show: setting constant hurdles up which should be either be turnaround moments or comedic hijinx, and avoiding all of that in favor of disarming naturalism. The ‘wrongness’ of Fleishman’s life is thus how… normal it essentially is. There’s Toby’s exciting discovery of online dating; there’s an indulgent relief gained from friends getting together (including another college mate, played by Adam Brody) and snipping about wives and husbands and life; and there’s the constant, lurking sense that none of what our leads are thinking or experiencing is very unique.
The show also takes quite a big risk in absolutely villainizing Rachel, as everything is told from Toby’s perspective (and told to us by Libby ), so for multiple episodes, all we know of his wife is that she’s an absent mother, obsessed with money and her job, and who callously left the kids with Toby one night and disappeared, then is sighted bopping around town at the park or whatnot. We know this can’t really be the reality: that a 2022 series, written by a woman, would seem so directly anti-woman in a way (with Libby also flashing to moments of her marriage, in which she’s also similarly cast as a villain), and treat Toby’s myopic views as canon and cute. There is subtle signposting that tells us this is all probably a feint, but at the same time, the show is dedicated to that feint, well past its midpoint. That it holds onto this as strongly as it does does ultimately have the effect of making the appearance of other points of view dripping in incredibly impactful, but it’s a structural risk all the same, faking nigh-absolute ignorance for as long as it does.
Now, while Fleishman Is In Trouble does stick to its thematic guns overall, smartly using its story-within-a-story frame to give us relative happy endings without cheapening its views on marriage and gender roles, it doesn’t quite “redeem” its women very satisfactorily, or flip its views on its men – that is, it doesn’t normalize either side. Which could still be part of its commentary, but amongst the aforementioned relative happy endings, it feels a bit icky, and leaves some notes of triteness across its final act.
The performances are stunning. Eisenberg and Caplan masterfully jump between insightfulness and flightiness, written all over their characters’ body languages and faces, and Danes owns this type of character that straddles domination and fragility in the same breath, bravely allowing for the villainization of her character before its given context. Toby’s children – played by Maxim Jasper Swinton and Meara Mahoney Gross – are equally well cast, and the story gives them ample room to be fully human, and not just proxies for thoughts on parenting.
Fleishman earns its runtime. It earns its stylization; it earns its heavy subject matter. And knowing there’s probably no “right” way to cover all this stuff, it’s truly impressive that it remains thematically consistent and engrossing for its eight episodes, up through leaving me with things to think and write about – the hallmark of any great piece of media.