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Fleishman Is in Trouble Review: We’re All in Trouble
What happens when people who used to love one another, uncouple, leaving behind a path of destruction in their wake.
This Q&A is a collaboration between Feature Presentation and Beth’s Exceptional Video Playlist and thus, can be found on both sites. Be sure to check out all the great TV and film content on these sites while you’re there. For this go, Patrick and Beth discuss the new hit show on Hulu, “Fleishman is in Trouble.”
Patrick: Beth, it’s so nice to be talking with you about Fleishman is in Trouble. Thanks for suggesting we watch it! What made you want to talk about this limited series?
Beth: Love the question and I’m fully prepared to answer this as I’ve been thinking about it for a while. First off, I’m a Claire Danes fan. Have been since My So-Called Life came out and finally met another “emo-girl” that I could relate to as a teenager. From there, seeing her in Homeland, of course. But with this particular story in Fleishman Is in Trouble, it feels very authentic to where I’m at in my life and in my cultural upbringing. Being in my 40s and having grown up in middle class Jewish culture, I relate to some of the aspects around social pressure and career mobility equating to this self-imposed status as you become more defined in your profession, having kids, as well as taking stock of your life in your 40s and trying to find yourself again, after being on hiatus for like what feels like an eternity of nurturing kids 24/7 when they are really young. I haven’t really experienced a ton of friends getting divorces but I think the idea of looking at your purpose and energy (which often as a caregiver (mom, dad, etc., can be externally focused), looking at your drive and what motivates you, and suddenly feeling empty because you sense you lost yourself along the way are universal themes at certain moments in your life and I think this show captures that well. I also liked that it captures female middle life “stuckness” both from a male and female perspective using the catalyst of a traumatic event, which is effective.
Patrick, what were some of the life themes that this show surfaced for you at this moment in your life?
Patrick: Fleishman Is in Trouble, for those that don’t know, follows Toby (Jesse Eisenberg) the summer after his ex-wife, Rachel (Claire Danes), drops the kids off at his apartment and never returns. For most of the eight episode series, we watch just that unfold as Toby figures out how to solo parent, re-enter the dating world after a long time away from it, and how all of this effects his career. I’m at the point in my life that the show often flashbacks to (complete with ridiculous wigs!), starting my family and laying down our path. I must admit, the show didn’t sound too enticing to me at first. As a child of divorced parents, the honesty of these stories can be real hit or miss with me. Pair that with Eisenberg, who I’ve never been the biggest fan of (except for The Squid and The Whale, funnily enough, another story about divorce that spends a lot of time at the American Museum of Natural History!), and it didn’t seem like the show for me. However, it quickly grabbed my attention. It’s my favorite Eisenberg by far and I appreciated how his character’s sympathetic nature is flipped on its head as the show progressed. Am I on his side because I should be or because I agree with him more often that I’d like to admit?
Beth: I feel like we’re all supposed to ask ourselves this question. I also felt somewhat disappointed by my own dislike of Rachel and being more pro-Toby at the beginning. We’re supposed to, I think. She abandoned her kids, afterall. How can a mother do that? Taffy Brodesser-Akner, the author of the book and screenwriter for the adaptation, has alluded to how having people take a look at and take seriously the female mid-life “crisis” also means we need to start with the male interpretation of things, their perspective, for society to really accept it. I thought about this going into those final episodes where to your point, we were seeing a new side to Toby. Does it suck that he’s left holding the bag when his ex-wife suddenly disappears without much of a trace? Yes. But should he have been maybe more attentive to some of the clues of her mental state during and after their marriage. Probably. I also had a hard time with how kind Toby was at work to his colleagues and patients, and how much of that same generosity of spirit was denied to his wife, not necessarily kids though. But again, this stuff happens in real life all the time. We give so much of ourselves to our work and have less to give at home. Also, do we give Toby more credit than we’d give Rachel for doing the parent things that he should be doing anyways because he’s the dad and do we judge Rachel more harshly because she doesn’t conform to a traditional maternal archetype that we’d otherwise not give a side glance to if a dad acted that way? Toby at one point says to Rachel that she’s like a stereotype of a “50s dad” coming home at the end of the day and kissing the kid on the head at the dinner table but not really there.
In the last episode of the series, I lost most of my sympathy for Toby by his cold reaction to Libby’s telling him that Rachel had this nervous breakdown. Like he didn’t even want to hear about it, nor have her use these exact words with him, and all he could do was think about how Rachel’s mid-life crisis had inconvenienced him. Now, it’s fair to say this is a realistic interpretation and that’s what makes it hard to stomach, but I think Toby needs to pause and reflect. Stop with the serial dating for a beat and listen to Libby. Ultimately he does though and he’s back to this kind, tender, thoughtful Toby. So am I on his side? I’m on the Fleishmans’ side in general. I want them to get out of trouble - all 4 of them - and heal together and I think we see signs of this happening, especially with the Museum visit to the void, and the beautiful synagogue moment where Hannah, their daughter, decides she doesn’t want a Bat Mitzvah which is hard for Toby to hear but he does hear her and he handles it well. And then they play the Israeli version of Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” which was tremendous. Speaking of which, can we talk about the playlist for this show? Beyond the covers (Dancing in the Dark, by Nicole Atkins and you’re welcome), the entire soundtrack (Annie Lennox, Amy Winehouse, Wilco, Regina Spektor) to Seth’s engagement party was like reliving my youth. And what did you think about the casting for the show? Using all childhood stars - Lizzy Caplan, Jesse Eisenberg, Adam Brody and Claire Danes?
Patrick: I’m sorry, we can’t gloss over “the covers” when we got a backyard bbq cover band version of FREE BIRD and it went ignored by everyone at the cookout. Anyway, the cast. Like I said, I’ve never really been in Eisenberg’s corner. I think that, through this, I’ve discovered that maybe I just don’t like teenage Jesse, as the characters he got typecast as are the exact kind of person I tried to avoid in my teenagehood. I’m glad you have the Claire Danes connection because I just…don’t. I’ve seen her in a handful of things, I suppose, but this was my big introduction to her. She’s clearly excellent, as her reputation precedes her, but Episode 7, “Me-Time” is just as good as everyone says it is. Adam Brody is very popular in my household, for obvious reasons. I do think we should stop and talk about Lizzy Caplan as Libby, the show’s narrator. She’s obviously the stand-in for Brodesser-Akner and the show is the novel within the show inspired by a novel. It took me until, well, about the series finale to fully understand this plot device. How did it serve the story for you?
Beth: So admittedly, it took me about 2 episodes into this show to even equate the narrator’s voice with Lizzy Caplan (Libby). I think this is less about my observational skills (or we can pretend this, anyways) and more about the fact that I was so focused on the acting and Eisenberg in those first few episodes. There was so much on screen to be stimulated by in the events that unfolded post Rachel leaving that it was like watching a trainwreck. The narrator’s voice felt less impactful or was less integral to my experience of the show. Then as the story unfolded, I was drawn to Libby and her words and her ability to make sense of what was going on. I enjoyed that Libby’s story also served to expose how women are complicit in how they condemn other women and often are more sympathetic inherently to the male’s POV. We see this in Libby’s own story. She was a writer for a men’s magazine in her 20s and 30s and this men’s magazine has to be GQ based on Brodesser-Akner’s history writing for the mag. But Libby’s career is dimmed and limited by lesser dudes who get opportunities in the workplace that she is denied. Her hero is the Christian Slater character (in a wonderful cameo), Archer, who is a misogynistic, overrated author who notably by Libby’s admission only sees the male perspective in his work. This also is something that Libby takes away from her career and carries into her writing - that there are always 2 sides to every story. After a while, she leaves this job and opts to be a stay-at-home mom and feels unfulfilled by this and wants something else. Reconnecting with Toby and Seth is a lifeline for her and like the start of any great novel, the one Libby is writing, takes her a path to self-discovery and gratitude for her life. I’m a Libby fan, in case you couldn’t tell. I also feel like Lizzy Caplan was jipped in not getting nominated for any awards for her performance which throughout the series, she clearly slayed. I also think that Adam Brody (again, playing a character named “Seth.” His character from The OC), is an underestimated talent. I, like you, am not generally a Jesse Eisenberg fan, though my perception of him has changed for the better with this role. I feel like he typically has one dimension of playing and it’s generally Woody Allen meets Mark Zuckerberg. He even starred in Cafe Society (Woody Allen) and of course in The Social Network (as Zuckerberg). I doubt that there will be a season 2 as this is a standalone novel with an endpoint and I don’t think I’d want a continuation of the series because it ends perfectly setting the stage for enough mystery and ambiguity about the future. Taking into account all 8 episodes, what scene(s) for you were the strongest in the series? Any surprises?
Patrick: I think we could talk all day about the Kramer vs. Kramers and the Marriage Storys of the world and the iconic divorce blow-up scenes that are catnip for actors, but I think the scene that added another layer for me, taking it from another divorce story to one that’s more complicated and about how a series of survival decisions and events collectively tell the story of one’s life, is the scene with Rachel and her OB-GYN. Would you like to talk about that?
Beth: Thanks Patrick. I definitely would like to talk about that scene. In it, we witness Rachel giving birth to Hannah. It’s supposed to be this miraculous and beautiful event - the birth of her first child. And then nothing goes as expected, which is generally how births work. Rachel’s regular OB-GYN is out and she had to see another doctor. She is not happy about this and feels uncertain. The delivery room is chaotic as she needs to be induced and instead of asking for Rachel’s permission to break her water, which is standard protocol, the substitute doctor breaks her water, causing her incredible pain. She is violated in this act and from then on, she’s almost catatonic, a ghost who is not really present for the birth of her daughter and unable to connect and bond with Hannah after the fact. We see this delivery both from Toby’s perspective and Rachel’s as told to Libby. Toby, as a doctor, sees postpartum written all over Rachel’s face and sort of is out of his element, even as he’s trying to put on his clinical hat to care for her. He’s left having to care for Hannah, find the nanny, and also try and solution for Rachel to “get better.” The aftermath of the trauma Rachel endured causes her to detach from people, not want to go out, and eventually she joins a Survivor’s Group for Sexual Assault, at the hospital where she finally feels like she belongs and she cries. We see in this moment how much pain and sadness Rachel holds on to and it’s pretty powerful to witness how much Danes expresses here. Then again, this is the woman that has a whole page of dedicated cry-face memes that she’s amassed throughout her career. The key scene for me in this whole series that hopefully wins Danes the Supporting Actress noms in Critics’ Choice and Golden Globes is the elevator scene with Rachel (Danes) and the OB-GYN. This happens a number of months after Hannah’s birth and Rachel is regularly attending the group meetings and feeling better. Then one day, en route to the group, she is in the elevator alone with the OB-GYN. She’s having what looks like a panic attack in this moment and he’s looking straight ahead and oblivious. As Libby narrates, Rachel had “four floors to confront him” about what he had done. She wrestles with this and the nagging thought that he had seen something in her that made him think it was OK for him to do what he did to her - that made her into his victim. Of course, this is a turning point for Rachel and she leaves the hospital, decides not to go back to the survivor’s group and puts on her work clothes and starts her own agency, reaffirming that Rachel is a survivor, but more than this, she’s a thriver. So this brings me to another question. Do you think Toby is a hypocrite in his disdain for the material and the status that Rachel clings to as a form of security and stability, since he also benefits from it?
Patrick: I think hypocrisy is basically unavoidable in life, as the show portrays. It’s possible to both be critical of something and be okay with benefiting from it. I’m sure we all do that in our own ways. Toby hates the lifestyle that he and Rachel have cultivated, but that same lifestyle cushions the blow of the divorce when it comes to easily finding a new apartment for himself, dropping his kids off at an expensive summer camp, firing his babysitter without a second thought. I think that gets to the heart of exactly what I liked about this show and what I would like to be my final thought: People are complicated. And not in a put it on a bumper sticker kinda way, everyone is more complicated than you could ever imagine. Even the people you know intimately. Or think you know. Your partners, your lifelong friends. Hell, even yourself. There are no heroes, there are no villains. You can always learn something new, something can always be revealed about the people you think are black and white that can totally change the way you see them. We think Toby is the hero of our story and that Rachel is the villain for a long time. But did he ever take the time to step outside the situation and think about it from her perspective? Can he even do that? Probably not, so we need Libby as the narrator. A person he hasn’t even been in contact with since his marriage. But people grow, they change. It’s unavoidable. Can you remember all of that when you’re in the thick of it? That’s the hard part.
Beth: This show does a solid job of showcasing just how damn complex people are and how the sum of all your experiences (good, bad, neutral) form who you are and how you engage with the world. Do I think we are the least kind and most cruel sometimes to the people we love? Yes. Do we take them for granted? Yes. But what constitutes deciding to leave a union and making that break? Even at the end, I think we hold out hope that Toby and Rachel will be able to come to some sort of understanding and friendship and better uncouple through conscious understanding of one another. I don't think we are rooting for them to get back together. In this way, this series brings a deeper and richer context to life experience. Most shows or series, when we are left with two sympathetic and flawed people we want them to get back together. Here, I don’t think that’s the point. Also, on an endnote, can I just say I really enjoyed seeing Josh Radnor (Ted, How I Met Your Mother) here playing Libby’s husband. I’m rooting for that relationship, though again, who knows where that will go. I’m not sure that marriage is salvageable, but then even Michelle Obama, whose marriage seems very solid, recently admitted to “not being able to stand [Barack Obama] for a decade of their marriage.” This is also part of the reality of the long game. Either way, I thoroughly enjoyed and connected with this show and in writing this post-show reflection with you.
Patrick: Thanks! Next, we’re covering all 850 episodes of Antiques Roadshow - right?
Beth: I thought you were going to say Succession! It’s roughly the same number of shows, right?
Patrick: That works too!
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