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The Glorious Fleishman is In Trouble Is an Ode to Middle Age

Jesse Eisenberg, Lizzy Caplan, and Claire Danes all do career-best work.
  • Jesse Eisenberg, Claire Danes, and Lizzy Caplan in Fleishman is in Trouble (Photos: Matthias Clamer/FX)
    Jesse Eisenberg, Claire Danes, and Lizzy Caplan in Fleishman is in Trouble (Photos: Matthias Clamer/FX)

    If you know someone long enough, then you’re going to see them fail. They’ll say something horrible or do something worse, and you’ll have to acknowledge they’re the kind of person who can act that way. Of course, they’ll also learn the same thing about you: It’s inevitable. What matters is how the two of you deal with it. The crucial work of any long relationship is learning to let each other be human, and that’s work Fleishman Is In Trouble understands.

    The first several hours of FX’s eight-part limited series focus on how things collapse for its middle-aged characters, and you can tell the show is on to something because it makes this seem like an adventure. It can, in fact, be exhilarating to have your life blow up. Stressful and devastating, yes, but also strangely energizing as you realize you’re faced with fresh possibilities after years of comfortable routine.

    That’s where we find Toby Fleishman (Jesse Eisenberg), a liver specialist in New York City who’s learning to be single after divorcing his wife Rachel (Claire Danes). He’s delighted to discover that women on dating apps think he’s a perfect one-night stand, and in the first episode, the screen regularly fills up with naughty messages and naughtier photos from women across the city. Eventually we get a dizzying montage of actual sex, with the camera swirling in circles overheard to evoke Toby’s newfound hedonism.

    In the midst of all this, we see Toby as a smart, funny, compassionate doctor and equally dedicated father. Is he snarky about Rachel? Sure, but overall, he’s a guy with heart and soul. He’s also got great friends: The series is narrated by his college buddy Libby Epstein (Lizzy Caplan), a writer at a men’s magazine who has moved to the suburbs with her family but has kept her wit and her willingness to meet up at greasy-spoon diners. Their other long-time bestie is Seth Morris (Adam Brody), a permanently single finance guy who both hosts parties where people discuss philosophy and takes Toby to underground clubs where married people never go. In these early episodes, the trio has a loving, sarcastic rapport that makes them seem like the platonic ideal of adult friendship. Even after Rachel vanishes, leaving her two kids with their father, there’s a vivacity to the way Toby and his pals interact that suggests he’ll be fine.

    Credit Taffy Brodesser-Akner, who wrote the novel Fleishman Is In Trouble and writes most of the episodes. She has a gift for gently teasing her characters while loving them at the same time, so that we can be charmed by their attempts to survive their adulthood. In one scene, for instance, Libby tries to get dressed in a pool changing area, surrounded by people who seem calmer and fitter than she will ever be. "As I battled the cobra that is the Land's End tankini, I couldn't stop thinking about Rachel,” she says. That erudite whimsy is matched by Caplan’s physical comedy as her swimsuit refuses to go on straight.(The costumes keep supporting the humor that way, whether it’s Toby wearing tailored shorts in every possible situation or Libby struggling through a suburban aerobics class in a t-shirt for Fairway, the preferred grocery store of New Yorkers who would never dream of moving to the suburbs.)

    This is all so entertaining that viewers might barely notice when cracks emerge. Eventually, though, the camera stops moving so much. Instead, it placidly stares at people's loneliness and fear. At the same time, Libby’s voiceover gets more and more honest about what isn’t okay, like when Toby flees a gathering that’s full of married people and their kids. “He had to leave,” she says. “He couldn’t bear the families anymore.” The characters aren’t any less smart or funny or fundamentally decent as they begin to fall apart, and that’s part of the point. They can be all of those things and still not be prepared for the body blows of getting older. As a viewer, it’s agreeably disorienting to watch the show transform this way — from a comedy of divorce into a threnody for middle age.

    The shift is complete by the seventh episode. After focusing on Toby and Libby, the series finally lets us hear from Rachel, whom we’ve only seen through the eyes of her ex-husband and his friends. Her perspective provokes an eruption of sorrow, and Danes’ performance captures the vulnerability Rachel has hidden beneath her persona as a hard-edged theater agent. Just like the character who unexpectedly encounters her and hears her story, Rachel forces us to reevaluate our relationship to everyone on the show. We have to concede how flawed even the most wonderful people can be, and we have to confront how our own blind spots may have turned us against people who didn’t deserve it.

    Then comes the finale, where the ripples of those revelations spread far and wide. As Toby and Libby face their failings and learn the depths of their love, both Eisenberg and Caplan give the performances of their careers, braiding their innate intelligence with the rich feeling demanded by the script. The result is so moving — and so very perceptive about what it means to care about someone for decades — that this reviewer was compelled to write a letter to an old friend. It’s the kind of show that does that, encouraging us to think about what we’ve known, forgiven, and most of all loved about each other.

    The first two episodes of Fleishman Is In Trouble premiere November 17 on Hulu. New episodes through December 29.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: Fleishman Is in Trouble, FX, Adam Brody, Claire Danes, Jesse Eisenberg, Lizzy Caplan, Taffy Brodesser-Akner