Since March 1, Disney+ has had a series on its schedule that ran in the U.S. late last year, but generated “buzz” too late to be given proper consideration in the many annual reviews and best-of lists. As a fan of complex, character-based series, however, you definitely shouldn’t leave the eight-part miniseries to the left. “Fleishman is in Trouble” is the series version of the novel of the same name by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. The upside-down Manhattan skyline on the cover shows where the journey is headed: to a world in which nothing is as it was once planned. With a top-class cast and prominent guest appearances, the film deals with a whole range of existential issues, presented with a bilious wit, an unreliable narrator and astonishing shifts in perspective.
Trailer for “Fleishman Is in Trouble”
First, let’s take the title at its ostensible word: Toby Fleishman (Jesse Eisenberg, “The Social Network”) is in trouble. The 41-year-old has a more-than-good job as a gastroenterologist specializing in liver disease at a prestigious New York hospital, but his marriage has just fallen apart, like the Roman Empire, it is once said, first very slowly and then furiously. Since then, Toby has been living in a sparsely furnished apartment, sharing custody of his two children, Hannah (Meara Mahoney-Gross) and Solly (Maxim Swinton, “Halston”), with his ex Rachel (Claire Danes, “Homeland,” “Welcome to Life”), who has remained in the previous apartment.
Initially, the series could still be considered an appropriately satirical treatise on middle-aged men who (have to) go back on the dating stalk: For Toby, who is certainly not “old.” Still, as a teenager has not yet had to deal with apps like Tinder and the like, this world is brand new. The series wants us to believe that the starved head doctor, played in a tried and tested manner by Eisenberg, is hooking up with one classy woman after another, but it’s enough to make for a few bizarre episodes, such as when he hooks up with the wife (Mozhan Marnò from “The Blacklist”) of a rich and prominent man, whose condition is that the relationship take place exclusively in her apartment. Are you on the apps?, the (married) men in Toby’s entourage ask, not without lustful admiration. Toby, however, doesn’t like it at all in the end. The creeping drifting apart of the couple, which resulted in their separation, is meanwhile delivered in many flashbacks, as “scenes of a marriage” so to speak, sometimes embarrassingly intimate.
New York power lady at the limit: Rachel (Claire Danes) screams empty
The “difficulties” of the series title then intensify with an almost “Gone Girl”-like thriller motif: Rachel unloads the kids (unarranged) at Toby’s one night and disappears without a trace. Toby wakes up in the morning irritated, wondering: what happened? Where did she go? Such a disappearance is not at all like the theater agent, professional to the core, who is usually available 24/7 to her clients. So what does Toby do now? Dump the kids at summer camp (until “trouble” arises there again). Get prematurely excited about a promotion. Drift into a spiral of miserability.
But there’s still Libby and Seth – and that takes us away from “trouble” to another level of the narrative. Libby (Lizzy Caplan from “Masters of Sex”) and Seth (Adam Brody from “O.C., California”) are old friends of Toby’s from their student days, they know each other from a trip to Israel together. Both have taken completely different paths in life: Libby was frustrated at one point by the glass ceiling that prevented her from advancing as a writer for a lifestyle magazine; now she lives seemingly contentedly as a mother in New Jersey. Seth long lived a Hallodri life as a financial investor before suddenly losing his job and falling into a crisis of purpose. What’s more, Libby is the narrative voice of the series. Toby and Rachel and all the other characters are told from her perspective, and Libby repeatedly interjects with comments that sound as polished as if they were an article in one of the magazines for which she writes.
That we are already on the meta-level with Libby’s narrative voice quickly becomes clear when Libby first thinks about wanting to write a book, which she then doesn’t do for a very long time before finally lecturing Toby on the content at a party – it is (of course) precisely the story we are looking at there that we are having Libby tell us: A story about getting older, about everyday life covering up the passions of the beginning, about former ambitions that have faded away, about life choices made that have thereby made other options impossible. In short, it is intended to be a book that tells us about just about everything that drives people in the middle third of their lives when they look back and take stock and check out what else might be possible in the rest of their lives.
Libby sits in the park and makes a very amazing discovery
Novelist Brodesser-Akner is not only the originator, but also the showrunner of the miniseries; seven of the eight episode scripts were written by her. Even those who are not familiar with the novel will quickly realize that Libby is the author’s alter ego, and not just because of the professional similarities (Brodesser-Akner works as a journalist for the New York Times Magazine). As the series progresses, its focus shifts deftly away from Toby Fleishman and toward the two main female characters: Libby herself, who at one point manages to confront her nice lawyer husband Adam (“How I Met Your Mother” star Josh Radnor), who is increasingly perplexed by his wife’s demonstrated dissatisfaction. And then, in a rather spectacular scene at the end of the sixth episode, the narrative pivots to Rachel, who gets to fill the seventh episode almost alone – a perfect opportunity for Claire Danes to show what she can do in all facets. Her Golden Globe nomination is well deserved. The series title may now also be questioned anew: Which Fleishman is actually in trouble here?
This game with the outside view proves to be a stroke of luck for the series. Both ex-husbands are heard independently of each other, and the other is portrayed in a correspondingly negative light in these reports. And yet the narrative itself stands on decidedly shaky ground at the ambivalent conclusion, which seems fairy tale-like but is clearly identified as the fantasy of novelist Libby: In doubt, the story of Rachel and Toby Fleishman is just the vehicle for Libby’s recounting of her own midlife crisis.
That “Fleishman is in Trouble” is an extremely watchable series, but not a flawless masterpiece, is due to the fact that Brodesser-Akner wants to save too many aspects of the novel for the series: the intrigues in the hospital, a sexist advice writer (Christian Slater), class relations between the bottom, the top and the very top – too much occurs and is only briefly touched upon. It’s not just about the midlife crisis itself, but about a very specific milieu in which it takes place: the wealthy, mostly Jewish upper class on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
And there, you’re just never at your destination. There are always people richer than you – a constant breeding ground for discontent that drives the Fleishman couple apart. Toby is a well-off doctor with a fancy apartment in the middle of Manhattan and two well-behaved children, and the Fleishmans are naturally better off than most people, but Rachel wants more. She pushes Toby to change jobs, to move up, to network for the kids’ daycare and school careers strategically. It’s a luxury stress that erodes their marriage and even ends up making Rachel dote on the snobbish father of one of her daughter’s classmates (Josh Stamberg from “The Affair”). Or was it not like that at all?
The eternal hardships of the weekend dad: How to satisfy the kids?
“Fleishman is in Trouble” has more up its sleeve than the banal realization that even rich people have their troubles, such as when the series acknowledges that the wealthy usually just have better (financial) resources to deal with existential crises. Divorces in underprivileged milieus usually have more devastating effects on everyone involved. What the series sometimes exaggerates, however, is the off-screen commentary. In many sequences, especially in the last episodes, it would have been better to let the sensitive and multi-faceted acting of Eisenberg, Caplan, Danes stand and speak for themselves, instead of doubling it up with explanatory interpolations.
Nor can one deny a penchant for heightened symbolism in the otherwise impeccably staged episodes (two mixed-gender directing duos were at work: Shari Springer Berman with Robert Pulcini, “American Splendor,” and Jonathan Dayton with Valerie Faris, “Little Miss Sunshine”). At the end of the episodes, the camera repeatedly turns Toby’s collapsed world upside down, and as a means of possible healing, a “Vantablack” exhibition, of all things, has to be used, i.e. a room lined with the blackest, light-absorbing black, into which Toby hardly dares to enter with the children at first. Fortunately, however, the rest of this at times painfully honest series is considerably more subtle.
This text is based on viewing all eight episodes of “Fleishman is in Trouble”.