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‘Fleishman Is in Trouble’ spends too much time with the wrong people

Jesse Eisenberg and Lizzy Caplan in “Fleishman Is in Trouble.”  (Linda Kallerus/FX)
Jesse Eisenberg and Lizzy Caplan in “Fleishman Is in Trouble.” (Linda Kallerus/FX)
By Sonia Rao Washington Post

You need not be divorced – or married, even – to recognize the sense of upheaval that can accompany the dissolution of a marriage. Most people marry with the intent for it to last, and then all of a sudden the unluckier sort find themselves signing papers legally extricating their lives from the people with whom they hoped they would be entwined for good. They might be depressed about it. Or maybe they sigh in relief. Hollywood would suggest the most interesting, authentic stories fall somewhere in between.

The new FX limited series “Fleishman Is in Trouble” picks up after a divorce between the Fleishmans, Toby (Jesse Eisenberg) and Rachel (Claire Danes), a well-to-do couple in their early 40s on the Upper East Side. One day, Rachel, an overworked talent agent, simply disappears. She never returns from a retreat to pick up the couple’s two young children, leaving Toby to care for them while working as a liver specialist at a Manhattan hospital. From Toby’s perspective, which dominates at least the first few episodes, this is classic Rachel. Of course she would be this selfish.

“Fleishman,” adapted from a novel written by series creator Taffy Brodesser-Akner, initially operates as a mystery: Where is Rachel, and is this the sort of behavior that led to the end of their marriage? Viewers ponder the questions as Brodesser-Akner slowly upends whatever assumptions they may have formed. It isn’t novel to suggest there are two sides to every story, nor does “Fleishman” add much to that conversation. The intrigue lies in how it reveals simple truths about relationships blossoming, evolving and sometimes deteriorating – an exercise in perspective that winds up less effective in television form.

The book is written and the series narrated from the viewpoint of Toby’s college friend Libby Epstein (Lizzy Caplan), who stopped seeing Toby when he married Rachel over a decade ago and only hears from him when he reaches out to rekindle his friendship with Libby and their pal Seth Morris (Adam Brody) after the Fleishmans split up. Libby is just as dissatisfied these days, a former men’s magazine writer who feels stifled by her life in the New York suburbs with her husband, Adam (Josh Radnor), and their kids.

Libby narrates the series as though she resides in everyone’s head; this style, paired with the early focus on Toby, sets viewers up to empathize with him, at least somewhat. We are meant to roll our eyes with him at the shallow friends to whom Rachel clings, to feel his frustration as the sudden child care issues put strain on his performance at work. When Libby switches to Rachel’s perspective partway through, it seems as though we are meant to be surprised that Toby wasn’t entirely fair to his ex-wife.

The reveal lands with a whimper, given that viewers are well aware by this point that Toby is unpleasant. It’s not that “Fleishman” doesn’t understand this; multiple characters comment on what a jerk he can be, and an early montage of his post-divorce sexual activity suggests that his dating app activity is at least a little bit gross. But by spending so much time illustrating how a sympathetic figure can still be flawed, the series gets stuck in its own trap.

The structural issue is true of the novel as well – this is a loyal adaptation, with Brodesser-Akner writing all but one episode – though the author’s engaging prose keeps even a skeptical reader motivated. The series condenses that writing into Libby’s animated narration, narrowly avoiding an overreliance on it. Though Caplan commits to the task with impeccable timing, her character’s insights don’t do much to temper the smugness Eisenberg is great at exuding, but which the series deploys too often.

That “Fleishman” is front-loaded with Toby becomes even more unfortunate upon reaching the standout episode exploring Rachel’s side. Even while playing a woman unsure of herself, Danes has a commanding presence, one that immediately draws viewers in. She doesn’t need Libby’s voice-overs to help convey Rachel’s deep insecurities and anguish, though one line of narration just about sums it up: “Yes, she was a terrible person, but bad things happen to terrible people, too.”

Such is the moral of “Fleishman,” a narrow slice of the misery we inflict upon ourselves and our loved ones. It remains ambiguous which Fleishman the title is referring to; from the look of things, Rachel is in just as much trouble as Toby, or as anyone who has ever stuck a little too hard to their own point of view.

”Fleishman Is in Trouble” streams on Hulu.

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