Divorce is hard, or so I’ve been told by hundreds of movies and TV shows — enough to know I never want to go through it, and enough to know many, many people do. Spending time with these people is also hard. There are numerous reasons why — the venting about an ex, the anguish of being alone, the joys of new relationships, etc. — but it boils down to the simple fact that at this moment, these pre-, mid-, and post-divorced folks are not themselves. They’ve been thrown into a space between who they used to be and who they’ll be next. Do they want to be who they were before they were married? Or who they were during the best parts of wedded bliss? Or do they not want to go back at all? Has a failed marriage changed them forever? Do they want (or need) to become someone totally new? And is that too scary? Too unrealistic? To want to be someone you’ve never been before?
“Fleishman Is in Trouble,” a new FX series from Taffy Brodesser-Akner and based on her book of the same name, lives with these questions. The divorce at its center (and rocky marriages surrounding it) doesn’t stem from a simple mistake: It’s not because of infidelity, or loss, or one partner’s midlife crisis. It’s a slow but steady decay that resulted in sudden but sustained agony.
As you can imagine, that makes for a challenging entertainment experience, and the Hulu exclusive is wise enough to cast talented actors to help ease the audience through an uneasy story. (Couples, good luck.) Jesse Eisenberg, Claire Danes, Lizzy Caplan, and Adam Brody all infuse pathos and merriment into characters caught in earth-shaking emotional turbulence. But their story’s structure — primarily an extended, deliberate focus on Eisenberg’s titular Dr. Fleishman — undermines a significant part of their impact. “Fleishman Is in Trouble” is very much a series about appreciating multiple perspectives, and how societal and personal influences can encourage a singular interpretation of life. But it simply takes too long to acknowledge its central protagonist’s flawed vision, as if audiences aren’t already well-aware that in divorce, there’s always two sides to the story.
Meet Dr. Toby Fleishman, a recently divorced father of two who’s living in a functionally furnished, partially unpacked apartment. His two kids, 11-year-old Hannah (Meara Mahoney Gross) and 9-year-old Solly (Maxim Swinton), stay there part-time, and on this fateful day, they’ve been dropped off early, sans warning, by their mother and Toby’s ex-wife, Rachel (Danes). Typically, that wouldn’t be a problem. Sure, Toby would use the unscheduled inconvenience against Rachel in their ongoing argument over who’s at fault for, well, everything, but Toby loves his kids. He loves spending time with them. His main complaint in this scenario is that he has to work, and thus can’t spend all of his allotted time with Hannah and Solly actually with Hannah and Solly. That’s how much he loves them.
But he also loves his dating apps. Shortly after getting his own place (and sitting in every divorced dad’s seat of sadness: a beanbag chair), Toby entered the overwhelming world of Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, Coffee Meets Bagel, and more, scrolling and swiping through endless photos of eligible women who seem legitimately interested in him. One of these women agreed to a date on the current night in question, and even though Toby has been going on a lot of dates lately, he’s unwilling to cancel this one.
As Toby goes about his day — waxing rhapsodic about the wonders of the human liver (he’s a well-regarded hepatologist), meeting friends for a realistically hasty lunch, convincing his aspiring snob of a daughter that it’s OK to ride the bus — his thoughts travel back and forth in time. Rachel is introduced via flashbacks, as are his best buds Elizabeth (Lizzy Caplan) and Seth (Adam Brody), but his strained marriage takes aptly ample time in his mind, and out of his mouth. There are memories of Rachel and her moneyed friends mocking his job (“You’re a doctor? Aw, good for you”), memories of Rachel’s rise to the top of the New York theater scene (as an agent), and even memories of memories of Rachel, where Toby remembers telling his friends about her — the good and the bad.
It’s a lot to juggle, and “Fleishman” deserves credit for connecting the dots with relative ease. With an omnipresent voiceover linking one thought to the next, episodes fly by in a dense fog of relationship jigsaw pieces and post-relationship decision-making — the latter of which is accelerated further once Toby realizes Rachel has gone AWOL. Rather than pick up the kids after her weekend away, she just… doesn’t come back. Calls go un-returned. Texts are unanswered. Any sane adult would start to worry, so it obviously takes Toby an extra few days before he even thinks something bad may have happened to Rachel (instead of Rachel heartlessly causing something bad to happen to him).
Without spoiling how Rachel’s absence plays out, “Fleishman” isn’t a mystery. Not really. Exactly what it is remains in question, beyond one of TV’s many genre-bending series interchangeably described as a dark comedy, light drama, or the more modern “anti-rom-com.” Scenes are rich with telling details, from the clothes warn to the food ordered. The time period is demarcated by a frame-filling wall of Hillary Clinton campaign posters, but Trump references are mercifully few. Metaphors are bluntly deployed, yet rarely lingered upon, and the audience is trusted to make key connections later on without a tight-gripped helping hand. The direction, by duos Valerie Faris & Jonathan Dayton (“Little Miss Sunshine”) and Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini (“American Splendor”), whips, pans, and tilts with equal parts clarity and energy.
The problem lies mainly with Toby and the series’ stubborn focus on his commonplace post-divorce shenanigans (sleeping with anyone that moves, staying out all night with his bros, calling up old friends who he lost track of during the marriage). In the pilot, Toby tells his son about perspective: He instructs him to hold his thumb up, close one eye, and then close the other eye without moving his thumb. “So the same thing happens at the same time, but if [observed] at a different angle…” Solly says, trailing off. “…yeah, it’s also true,” Toby confirms.
But even when rooted in his perspective, it’s clear that Toby isn’t a great guy. He constantly talks about himself. He’s pompous about his job. He’s rich and, worse still, expects sympathy after being picked on for not being rich enough. He’s entitled, insistent, and even hurtful. You can still empathize with him, but you know there are equal, if not more deserving outlets for that empathy, and he’s sucking up all their oxygen. That the series points out how white privileged men like Toby have long controlled the narrative (along with more of Toby’s faults) doesn’t make spending all that time with him any easier, or more meaningful, or, in the best case scenario, Rachel and Elizabeth’s revelations later on all the more affecting. He still takes up space, and space is at a premium in the age of peak TV.
By the time “Fleishman” gets around to its other characters, it’s nearly too late. Episode 7 is both an enthralling piece of television and a reminder of what the whole show could have been if it had expanded its framework sooner. (Caplan, as Elizabeth, is the narrator, and for as great as her voice work is, her near-constant presence during hour after hour makes you ask, “Why aren’t we spending more time with her?”) Not funny enough to be standalone satire and with a lead so self-involved he restricts a stronger emotional connection, “Fleishman Is in Trouble” ultimately only works as a thought exercise. Thankfully, there is a lot to think about — if you’re willing to give the time.
“Fleishman Is in Trouble” premieres Thursday, November 17 on Hulu. New episodes will be released weekly.