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Kathryn Hahn's Mrs. Fletcher is a Simmering Pot of Possibility

Tom Perrotta adapts his own novel into an incisive empty nest story that flips the script.
  • Kathryn Hahn in Mrs. Fletcher (HBO)
    Kathryn Hahn in Mrs. Fletcher (HBO)

    "Bye, Mrs. Fletcher! Enjoy your empty nest!" Those are the horrid words spoken by Eve's son's quasi-girlfriend on the morning he moves away to college. This, after Eve spent the previous day packing a disinterested Brendan's bedroom and then all morning loading up the car, while Brendan got a beej from this insensitive little blonde who then bikes home like she didn't just shatter every part of Eve's fragile heart with that "empty nest" comment.

    Mrs. Fletcher, the new HBO-half-hour dramedy starring the unimpeachable Kathryn Hahn, sets itself up quite effectively as an empty-nest story. Eve's a divorced mom who took on all the responsibilities, drove to all the hockey practices, bought Brendan the cereal he likes at the grocery store, caring and tending and nurturing and chauffeuring up until the moment she drops him off at school. Is he grateful? No! (Stick a pin in Brendan, though; we'll get into his whole deal momentarily.) Is her ex-husband — played with an infuriating, gaslight-y tone by the perfectly cast Josh Hamilton — grateful? Absolutely not! There's a lot that can be (and has been) done with women characters who suddenly don't have the "wife" and "mother" identities to cling to anymore. Mrs. Fletcher does that, and it does so in part by having Eve get hooked on internet porn. Which … hey, if you're looking for something that'll occupy your suddenly empty nights and weekends, it'll do!

    What's interesting is that looking at a logline like "A divorced woman whose son goes off to college copes with her empty nest by getting hooked on porn" makes Mrs Fletcher sound like … well, like a Showtime series. There was a time when that network made its bread and butter by casting under-served, phenomenally talented actresses as harried moms whose adult lives take an extreme turn. Suburban mom Mary-Louise Parker dealt pot on Weeds. Midwest mom Toni Collette dealt with multiple personalities on Unites States of Tara. NYC mom Edie Falco was a drug-addicted nurse on Nurse Jackie. You could see Mrs. Fletcher falling into that pattern, with porn as the attention-grabby driver of the plot. But that's not what's going on here, and the show — and Hahn — are better off for it.

    Based on Tom Perrotta's novel, and brought to the screen by Perrotta himself, fresh off of his HBO triumph with The Leftovers (HBO Sunday nights are a veritable Leftovers reunion these days, with Damon Lindelof and Regina King on Watchmen at 9:00 PM). Unsurprisingly, Perrotta brings a ton of empathy to a wider swath of characters than you would initially expect. Eve's efforts to occupy her time include taking an adult-education writing class, and what initially seems like it will be the butt of a joke about her futility ends up blossoming into a vibrant corner of the show. In the season's third episode, an after-class trip to the bar really helps to bring these characters to the fore, and it's so rewarding. One of those students, Julian (Owen Teague), was a classmate of Brendan's whom Brendan bullied endlessly, which opens up a few tantalizing avenues for the show to explore.

    That's actually one of the great strengths of Mrs. Fletcher. Everything we learn about these characters opens up some new avenue, and Perrotta is happy to follow them. Perhaps the riskiest decision the show makes is to follow Brendan to college and cede nearly half of the show to him. As the series begins, Brendan is pretty much reprehensible. Lazy, inconsiderate, ungrateful of his mother, an odious bully to people like Julian, disrespectful to women, and — from the looks of it  — bad at sex. The show then flings him into the wilds of college, and rather than just have him exist as an absence in his mother's life, we see what he's up to. On his last night before moving away, Julian affixes Brendan with the kind of curse that all the bullied ultimately pray is true. "You know you're gonna get to college and everybody's gonna see exactly what you are, right?" he asks. He's not far off, as we watch Brendan's old charms begin to lose their potency when faced with a campus full of active, Type-A personalities eager to shape their worlds into something that looks nothing like him.

    Initially it seems strange that we're being asked to empathize with Brendan here. Poor handsome white jock, realizing things don't fall at his feet the way they did in high school. Or worse, watching Brendan learn his lesson at the hands of woke campus feminists — one of whom, Chloe, played by Jasmine Cephas Jones, sure seems to like flirting with him anyway — runs the risk of pretending that straight, white boys don't still have tremendous privilege and advantages, even in college. But Perrotta and the rest of the Mrs. Fletcher writers see a necessary parallel in Brendan's story, and with Jackson White playing him in such a stymied-brat kind of way, resisting the temptation to turn him into a lovable, oafish dummy, it's exciting to see where he's going.

    Perrotta can invest this much in the other corners of the show because he knows he's got Kathryn Hahn holding up the tent pole at the center. Hahn has been a dynamo of the Peak TV era for a long time, and she's become as reliable as anyone when gifted with a script that allows her to find her character's fire. She's so good at playing these unassuming types who hide something combustible beneath the surface. And when paired with the series' all-star team of directors — which includes Nicole Holofcener, Gillian Robespierre, Liesl Tommy, and Carrie Brownstein — her Eve Fletcher is a covered pot, simmering with possibility.

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    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Mrs. Fletcher, HBO, Kathryn Hahn, Tom Perrotta